Getting familiar with technical and medical terms is something everyone’s been doing since the COVID-19 pandemic began earlier in the year. The personal protective equipment (PPE) terms in particular have been a big focus during all of this, but one of the most heard and read words has been ‘face mask, and there’s a good reason for this. Social distancing and the use of face masks have been the two best resources of virus protection implemented to prevent the spread of the SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19.
N95 masks, also known as N95 respirators, are certainly the center of attention between all the disposable face masks available. KN95 masks, often confused with them, have also been popping up on our vocabulary lately. But, is there a difference between these two? If so, what is it? We’ll talk about some of their similarities and differences in this article, keep reading to learn more.
Let’s start with their similarities. Both are disposable face masks used as a crucial part of the PPE for workers in industries like painting, mining, or construction. They’re also used by allergic people since they’re effective for protection against dust, N95 respirators being a staple for families with allergic kids or adults, used when cleaning or dusting their homes.
The confusion between these two usually comes from their very similar names, and thus they tend to get mixed up. But, there’s a reason for the names to be so similar, and it’s because both have a percentage of minimum particulate filtration efficacy of 95%, meaning they can filter out at least 95% of all airborne particles. The main difference, however, comes from the regulatory standards used in the manufacture of each mask.
N95 respirators are manufactured following the standards of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The name comes from their classification for respirators, and this is the standard used inside the United States for respirators. The name of each respirator is given based on the characteristics used by this classification, with nine possible respirators.
According to this classification by NIOSH, N95 refers to any type of respirator with no resistance to oil, indicated by the letter ‘N’, and with a filtration rate of at least 95% of all airborne particles in the air, indicated by the number ‘95’. This makes them effective for protection against any type of non-oil based particle, including dust, smoke, or bioaerosols like the flu virus or the new novel coronavirus.
They’re more effective than surgical and medical masks, or reusable cloth masks. They can be paired with face shields for more protection, and some of the most popular models include 3M N95 masks like the 3M 8210 and the 3M 8511.
The NIOSH classification is used in the USA, but different countries use different standards for regulating respirators around the world. For example, the standards in Europe are the EN 149:2001+A1:2009, and in China they use the GB2626-2006.
The Chinese standards explain that KN95 respirators are those that are not resistant to oil, indicated with the ‘KN’, and can filter out at least 95% of the airborne particles in the air, signaled by the ‘95’. Sounds familiar? According to 3M, one of the main manufacturers of respirators in the world, KN95 respirators are equivalent to N95 masks from the USA for filtering non-oil-based particles such as those resulting from wildfires, PM 2.5 air pollution, volcanic eruptions, or bioaerosols (e.g. viruses)".
In the United States, N95 masks are one of the most important parts of the PPE. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t usually regulate them unless the respirator is being marketed for medical use by the manufacturer. When an N95 mask is approved by the FDA and NIOSH, it can be used as surgical, medical, or dental PPE, providing full safety to the wearer.
On March 22, 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the FDA released an emergency use authorization (EUA) for certain NIOSH-approved respirators that weren’t approved by them before, but have been cleared to be used by healthcare workers due to the emergency they’re facing. Along with N95 respirators, several KN95 mask models also fell under the EUA granted by the FDA, deeming them safe to be used in healthcare settings as respirators. But, on May 7, after not meeting the minimum filtration rate of 95%, many KN95 mask models were removed from this authorization.
The bottom line is that the main difference between these two respirators is the standards used to regulate them, N95 masks being regulated by US standards, and KN95 masks by Chinese ones. So, is there a difference between these two standards? The answer is yes, but these are considered very minimal.
NIOSH itself doesn’t require workers to pass fit tests for leakage to consider and approve a respirator as N95, even though certain companies do require these fit tests when purchasing PPE. The Chinese standards do require the manufacturer to run fit tests on humans to ensure a percentage of leakage of less than 8%.
The breathability standards in the USA are much stricter than the Chinese ones used in KN95 masks. The pressure drop requirements while breathing, including both inhalation and exhalation, are slightly stricter on N95 masks, ensuring good oxygenation while wearing the mask. This means that no, it’s impossible for a person to suffocate because of a face mask.
But, other than these two small differences, N95 and KN95 masks are generally considered to be interchangeable.
Using antiviral protection face-coverings is very important these days, and anyone who uses a face mask is doing their part to prevent the spread of the virus. There are a lot of options for sale online, including options in different sizes, and to buy in bulk or wholesale.