During the COVID-19 pandemic, N95 masks have been some of the most requested items. Even though medical supplies like face shields, KN95 masks, surgical masks, and others have also been highly requested, with people buying them in bulk and wholesale, N95 masks take the lead on the highest demand during the pandemic.
You’ve probably seen people wear masks with valves in them, and after seeing them for sale in online or physical stores, you might wonder if you need to buy one for yourself. This will depend on what situations you’ll use the mask in. In this article, we’ll discuss this, as well as how the valves work and what they’re used for.
Regular N95 masks
N95 masks are the best disposable face masks available in the healthcare field for workers during the pandemic. This is because they offer great filtering properties that make them the preferred choice for virus protection, with more antiviral abilities than the popular surgical masks, which are the most used type of face mask in medical settings.
N95 masks are also called N95 respirators because they are considered respirators according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). These are masks or mask-like devices that are widely used in different work settings, which all have in common the presence of respiratory hazards. These particles are detrimental to human health when inhaled, and respirators trap them in their filter to prevent that.
NIOSH is a federal agency created to be a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to make recommendations and spread information across the United States to help prevent work-related illnesses and keeping workplaces safe in the USA. For this, they regulate respirators following a classification established by themselves, based on a two-part naming system.
The two characteristics this system takes into consideration are:
- Oil resistance: this represents how well the respirator can filter out particles that contain oil in them and are indicated with a letter in the name: N means not resistant, R means somewhat resistant, and P means oil-proof.
- Filtration rate: this represents the percentage of particles with a size as small as 0.3 micrometers, which are considered airborne, the respirator can filter out, and is indicated in the name with a number: 95, 99, or 100.
According to this, N95 masks can filter out a minimum of 95% of the non-oil-based airborne particles in the air. For this reason, N95 respirators have multiple uses in different work settings, as they can filter out very diverse particles like dust, smoke, or viruses like the flu or the new coronavirus.
Approval from NIOSH is necessary for all N95 masks manufactured before they’re marketed as such. The agency tests the masks and makes sure they meet the requirements for this respirator type, as they do with all respirators manufactured following their classification.
KN95 masks are often confused with N95 masks because of their names, but in reality, they share more similarities than just that. KN95 masks can also filter out 95% of the airborne particles that don’t contain oil, the only difference is that they are regulated by other standards used in China.
N95 masks with valves
You’ve probably seen people wearing masks with valves in them, and you probably wonder why they do. These masks have been incredibly popular during the pandemic, with many people choosing these masks in public situations. However, many don’t know how they work or why they’re added to N95 masks.
Wearing N95 respirators, particularly in work settings with high temperatures and long shifts, can become uncomfortable and even difficult to breathe with. This is due to a high breathing resistance, and exhalation valves are added to decrease this, making the masks much cooler and comfortable to wear. However, how this is achieved makes these types of masks not suitable for some situations.
We’ll illustrate the difference between a regular N95 mask and a valved one with 3M N95 mask models. Regular N95 masks, like the 3M 8210 or the 3M 1860, filter out the air as it’s being both inhaled and exhaled, which not only protects the user, but also those around them by preventing them from releasing pathogens into the environment, but also from inhaling harmful particles.
Exhalation valves only filter out the air as it’s being inhaled, protecting the user, but don’t filter out the exhaled air because these are known as “one-way valves.” Valve 3M N95 masks include the 3M 8511. This reduces the breathing resistance, but don’t prevent the user from potentially releasing pathogens into the environment.
As a result, these masks aren’t suitable for situations in which it’s important to also prevent the release of microorganisms into the air. For example, during surgeries where it’s important to maintain a sterile field, when treating immunocompromised patients that can develop serious infections from usually harmless microorganisms, or to prevent the spread of COVID-19, since asymptomatic cases can spread the disease.
How to buy an N95 mask with a valve
Since these masks are not recommended for their use during the COVID-19 pandemic, they haven’t been affected by the devastating shortages most face masks have been affected by. These masks are usually more expensive than regular N95 masks, although with the increase in the demand for the latter this might not apply in the current times. Big manufacturers like 3M and Honeywell manufacture them, and you only have to look for their certified distributors to purchase them.
As we mentioned, valved N95 masks are not recommended for protection against COVID-19 for the reasons stated above. Regular N95 masks, although very efficient, should be reserved for healthcare settings. So, the CDC recommends reusable cloth masks for the protection of the general public, which includes kids above the age of 2.