After nine months and counting, the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t seem to be finishing any time soon. For over nine months we’ve been hearing and reading about a lot of medical and technical terms we weren’t familiar with before. N95 masks in particular have been the center of attention and at the forefront of the discussions surrounding the pandemic. Scams, scarcity, shortages, and the question of whether they’re effective or not, are some of the topics of ongoing discussion about these disposable face masks.
By now, many of us know that the new novel coronavirus is a respiratory virus that, like many other viruses in its genus, is spread through droplets that any infected individual can release to the air when they talk, sneeze, or coughs. When a healthy person inhales these droplets containing the SARS-CoV-2, the virus starts replicating and begins to colonize the respiratory tract of the person.
N95 respirators have been considered the best face masks for antiviral purposes since the earliest days of the pandemic at the beginning of the year. Talks about the national emergency stockpile and the N95 mask reserves inside the United States have been going on throughout the year, so a lot of people are asking if these face masks have an expiration date.
Yes, N95 masks have an expiration date, and employers of healthcare facilities and other industries need to be aware of how long they can store the masks. We’ll explain everything about N95 masks, why they have an expiration date, how to check it, and how to optimize their shelf life.
N95 masks are a class of respirators inside the NIOSH classification for respirators. NIOSH stands for National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. They’re in charge of testing and regulating respirators, certifying that they meet the standards for each respirator type inside their classification, making sure they can offer the protection needed to prevent work-related illnesses.
Many workplaces have particles known as respiratory hazards, which are substances that, when inhaled, can be very detrimental to a person’s health, leading to serious illnesses and conditions. For these work settings, respirators like N95 masks are required for the workers. Some of these workplaces include industries like mining or construction.
The NIOSH classification is based on two characteristics from the respirator: the percentage of minimum particulate filtration efficacy and oil resistance. In this classification, N95 masks are those without resistance to oil, which is indicated with the letter ‘N’ and can filter out at least 95% of the airborne particles in the air.
For this reason, N95 masks can effectively filter out 95% of the non-oil based airborne particles in the environment, such as dust, smoke, or viruses like the flu or the coronavirus. This makes them the most effective disposable face mask for virus protection, and healthcare workers are currently using them to work safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.
To be considered a legitimate N95 respirator, a certification by NIOSH is required. This makes sure that anyone who uses them is being fully protected against COVID-19 and other respiratory hazards. For use as medical equipment, the respirators need additional approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Anyone who manages an inventory for PPE (personal protective equipment) needs to know that the majority of the respirators and disposable face mask have a designated shelf life, which is essentially an expiration date. These disposable face masks shouldn’t be used after this shelf life is exceeded.
Why do these face masks have an expiration date? Since N95 respirators protect against harmful particles entering the airway, they contain a filter media that traps these particulates, preventing them from being inhaled by the wearer. To prevent any leakages, and make sure all the air being inhaled is being filtered through the mask, N95 respirators also need a tight fit around the face.
When respirators are in storage for a time that surpasses their established shelf life, they begin to deteriorate. Time makes the components from the mask to star degrading, including the straps or the nose foam, which affects the tight seal around the face. So, when respirators expire, they are no longer meeting the criteria for NIOSH approval, since they’re not effectively protecting the worker.
Most 3M N95 masks, including the 3M 8210 and 3M 8511, will have an expiration date or shelf life (these are the same thing). The expiration date varies according to the respiratory type, the date it was manufactured, the materials used, and specifically the filter media used. 3M N95 masks put the shelf life information on the side or the bottom of the packaging, accompanied by an hourglass symbol.
Along with the shelf life information, they usually also offer information about the temperatures of storage to which the shelf life is applied. This is because the conditions in which the respirators are stored influence the expiration date. In the USA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), requires respirators to be stored following some guidelines. For example, they need to be stored in their original packaging and away from areas in extreme temperatures, sunlight, excessive moisture, dust, or damaging chemicals.
They also recommend implementing good inventory management that includes stock rotation. This means that, when the respirators expire, they need to maintain the stockpile with usable respirators, disposing of the expired ones which can be recycled or donated to groups in need.
You can find many options for respirators in bulk or wholesale, which you can find for sale online. You can also find them in a smaller size for kids, and other options for protection like surgical masks, reusable cloth masks, KN95 masks, or face shields.