According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, also known as NIOSH, N95 masks are a type of respirator. This is a federal agency that was created inside the United States as a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with the goal to, performing scientific research and employing experts on the matter, make recommendations based on science that could help prevent work-related diseases or injuries.
They created what is known as the NIOSH respirator classification, the standard for filtration rate inside the USA. Part of their job is to regulate respirators used in different work-settings, certifying whether or not they meet the criteria for each respirator type inside the classification they’ve established. To name respirator types, they consider two characteristics:
- Whether or not the respirator has resistance to oil: this is signaled with a letter at the beginning of the name, indicating if the respirator is oil-proof (P), somewhat resistant to oil (R), or not resistant to oil (N). This is important to know if a respirator can be effective to filter out particles that contain oil in them.
- Filtration rate: the last part of the respirator’s name is a number, which can be either 95, 99, or 100, and they represent the percentage of minimum particulate filtration efficacy. For example, if you’re using a respirator with the number 99, it means it can filter out at least 99% of all the airborne particles from the air you’re inhaling.
It’s easy to conclude what an N95 mask is after knowing how the NIOSH classification works: it’s the name used to refer to any respirator capable of filtering out at least 95% of the non-oil based airborne particles in the air. Such particles include viruses like the flu or the coronavirus, dust, and coal smoke. And, based on this, there are nine possible respirator types inside the classification as the result of the combination of the alternatives in each characteristic they use. For example, there are N99 and P95 respirators as well.
N95 masks have been considered the best disposable face masks for antiviral purposes during the COVID-19 pandemic, and are the number 1 item used for virus protection in healthcare settings, recommended by the CDC and the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) to be reserved exclusively for healthcare providers and other workers on the frontlines of the pandemic. This is due to their high efficiency in filtering the virus, which is why they’re needed by people in jobs with a higher exposure to it, paired with face shields. Some particles N95 masks can’t protect from include hazardous vapors and gases, and oil-based particles like glycerine, cutting fluids, and lubricants.
Some of the most popular N95 mask models you’ve probably encountered are the 3M N95 masks, with some highly efficient models being the 3M 8511 and the 3M 8210. You’ve probably also read or heard about KN95 masks, and confuse them with N95 masks, but they’re not the same. KN95 masks are regulated under the filtration standard in China, and even though the differences between the two are very small, they’re technically not the same. However, they substitute N95 masks when these aren’t available in emergencies, like the COVID-19 pandemic. The equivalent to the N95 mask under the European standard is the FFP2 respirator.
For N95 respirators to be considered legitimate, they must have an approval stamp from NIOSH, certifying that they were tested by them, and they concluded it meets the criteria to fit this respirator type. If an N95 respirator doesn’t have this label, it’s a counterfeit product, and anyone who uses them is at risk of exposure to the harmful particles N95 masks protect from. Additionally, if an N95 mask is intended to be used as a medical supply in healthcare settings, it needs approval by the FDA as well. Although, with the pandemic, they’ve granted Emergency Use Authorizations to many mask models that weren’t previously approved by them, including several KN95 masks.
N95 masks are disposable face masks, which means they should be removed and properly discarded after an approximate time of use of 8 to 12 hours. After this, the respirator begins to get wet and the materials start to degrade, lowering the filtering properties of the device. But, not many people know how to properly dispose of an N95 mask, so here are some simple steps, as recommended by the CDC, to remove any type of disposable respirator:
- Wash your hands before and after handling the respirator. Keeping your hands clean is important when you handle the respirator, both for putting it on, adjusting it, or taking it off. This decreases the chances of contamination from your hands to the respirator, and vice-versa.
- Don’t touch the front or outer part of the respirator as it may be contaminated with fluids containing harmful particles. Instead, handle the respirator by the head straps.
- Discard the respirator in the labeled waste container destined for discarded medical supplies, and wash your hands immediately after.
Whether you’re a healthcare worker or not, these guidelines can be applied to other types of disposable respirators as well, like surgical/medical masks or KN95 masks, and they can also be applied for reusable cloth masks, even though these are cleanable.
We would like to remind our readers that face-coverings, the best resource to prevent the spread of COVID-19, can be found for sale easily online, with options in a smaller size for kids over the age of 2 years old, and available to buy in wholesale or in bulk as well.