This year, the general public has had to learn a lot about a topic none of us were familiar with before: personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical supplies. With the threat of the coronavirus, everyone is needing all types of protective items, with face masks being some of the most popular items used and recommended.
In the healthcare field, however, where exposure to the virus is higher, they need several layers of PPE, including surgical masks, respirators, gowns, gloves, and face shields or goggles. All of these items were bought by people before the pandemic easily in bulk and wholesale, but now not everyone can buy them that easily since healthcare centers are experiencing shortages.
One of the most talked-about items is the N95 mask, a special type of mask that is considered the gold standard for protection in the healthcare field. This valuable item was unknown to many of us before all this happened, and now it seems to be all we hear about. For this reason, it’s logical to think that many people don’t understand what an N95 mask is, where it gets its name, and why it’s so important.
In this article, we’ll discuss all the information regarding this critical mask, particularly what the ‘95’ stands for in N95.
N95 masks offer high antiviral protection due to their specific properties. They’re respirators that can be used for virus protection in healthcare settings, where exposure to the virus is much higher than in any other setting. Like surgical masks, they’re disposable face masks, but they’re much more effective for protecting the user against COVID-19, which is why they’re the preferred face masks for healthcare providers working during the pandemic and can’t be substituted by surgical masks or reusable cloth masks in hospitals and other medical centers.
The peculiar and somewhat cryptic name of this face mask has a meaning, both the N and the 95 represent something. It comes from a classification for respirators used in the United States as a guide to manufactured respirators intended to be used as PPE in different work industries. This naming system is established by NIOSH, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
The job of this federal agency, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is to make science-based recommendations to avoid work-related injuries or illnesses in workplaces across the USA. To achieve this goal, they also regulate respirators used in work settings where workers are exposed to harmful particles that could be inhaled and lead to serious health conditions, which are known as respiratory hazards. The respirator filters these particles and prevents the user from inhaling them.
The NIOSH naming system consists of two parts, each one representing a property of the respirator:
- Oil-resistance: this indicates if the respirator can filter out particles that contain oil in them, depending on how much or little they get damaged when in contact with these types of molecules. The higher the resistance, the better they can filter oil-based particles. This is the first part of the name, represented by one of three letters: N, meaning non-resistant, R meaning resistant, and P meaning oil-proof.
- Filtration efficacy: this indicates how well and how many airborne particles the respirator can trap in their filter media, represented with a percentage that is the minimum particulate filtration efficacy. Airborne particles are those with a size of 0.3 micrometers, which is very small. This is the second part of the name, indicated with the numbers 95, 99, or 100, which are equivalent to the percentages.
So, N95 masks are easy to understand now that we know the nomenclature used in the country. They can filter out a minimum of 95% of the non-oil-based airborne particles in the air, which includes a wide variety of particles that can be found in many different types of work settings. Dust, smoke, pollen, certain metals, and even viruses like the flu virus and the novel coronavirus can be filtered out by these masks, which is why they have many different uses.
All the respirators that are manufactured according to the NIOSH naming system and requirements must go through them before their distribution. For example, if I manufacture a respirator that is intended to be marketed as an N95 mask, NIOSH must first test it and approve whether or not it meets the criteria for that respirator. This is the only way to prove the respirator’s legitimacy. If it’s intended to be used as medical equipment, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) must approve it as well since they regulate all medical supplies and equipment.
Different filtration standards are used around the world. For example, you might have heard about KN95 masks too since they have a very similar name to N95 masks and they’ve also been widely used during the pandemic.
Although KN95 masks are regulated and manufactured under different filtration standards, which are the ones used in China, they’re very similar to the ones used in the USA. The ‘KN’ means the respirator is not resistant, and the ‘95’ means that’s its percentage of minimum particulate filtration efficacy.
In Europe, they use the FFP (filtering facepiece) classification and naming system, which is a bit different than the one used by NIOSH. They name all three of the respirator types FFP followed by the numbers 1, 2, or 3. The FFP2 respirators are the ones considered equivalent to N95 masks, and they are those with a filtration efficacy of over 94%, and an internal leak rate of 8%.
For some of the most high-quality N95 masks, looking for reliable brands like Honeywell and 3M is always the best choice. Some of the most popular 3M N95 masks are the 3M 8210, 3M 8511, and 3M 1860.