What does the N stand for in N95?

With the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of new topics have been widely talked about during this year, one of them being the personal protective equipment healthcare workers are needing to be safe. As we know, they have to cover themselves with layers of PPE including surgical masks, face shields, gloves, gowns, and of course, the popular N95 masks. A lot of people began to buy these items in bulk and wholesale as soon as the pandemic was announced, but now they’re very difficult to find for sale.

The truth is, not a lot of people know what these masks are and what they’re meant to do. They are a very valuable and critical item for the medical field during the pandemic, and all the details of why this is in their name, with the N representing a characteristic and the 95 representing another. In this article, we’ll talk about what the N in N95 stands for, and other information related to N95 respirators.

N95 masks have been considered during the pandemic as the best type of face mask healthcare providers can use, due to their great antiviral properties. They’re disposable face masks, just like surgical masks, but these offer much better virus protection in situations of high risk of exposure such as healthcare settings. For this reason, they’re the preferred face mask in hospitals and other similar facilities, and can’t be substituted with reusable cloth masks or even surgical masks.

The name of this mask has a meaning, and it was assigned by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, commonly known by their acronym NIOSH. This is a federal agency that is in charge of making recommendations and spreading information that is based on scientific research, so that workplaces across the United States ensure safety for their workers, preventing work-related injuries or illnesses.

As part of their job, this institution, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), also tests and evaluates respirators, regulating their use inside the USA. This is because these are items that are part of the PPE of many different work settings, but they all have one thing in common: the presence of respiratory hazards. These are particles that can lead to serious health conditions in the individuals who inhale them for prolonged periods, and respirators trap them in their filter media, preventing the user from inhaling them.

The NIOSH classification uses a two-part naming system that takes into consideration two characteristics to name the respirators:

  • Resistance to oil: this refers to how much the respirator can get damaged when in contact with particles that contain oil in them. The resistance is directly proportional to how well the respirator can filter out these oil-based particles, and it’s indicated with a letter: N means it’s not resistant, R means it’s somewhat resistant, and P means it’s oil-proof.
  • Filtration rate: this refers to the number of airborne particles (those with a size of 0.3 micrometers) the respirators can filter out from the air, and it’s represented by the percentage of minimum particulate filtration efficacy which can be either 95, 99, or 100%.

In the case of the N95 respirators, they can only filter out 95% of the non-oil-based airborne particles in the air. Such particles include a wide variety of bioaerosols, like the flu virus, the SARS-CoV-2 (the virus responsible for COVID-19), or the bacteria that causes tuberculosis. But, they can also filter out other non-oil-based airborne particles like dust, smoke, pollen, and many other allergens and respiratory hazards, which is why N95 masks can have many different uses in a wide variety of work settings, not only the healthcare one. Some particles they can’t filter out include glycerin and cutting fluid, which contains oil, or vapors and gases, because they’re too small.

As we mentioned, respirators manufactured following the NIOSH classification for respirators have to be evaluated by the institution, and they can approve if the respirator meets the criteria for each type. Without this approval, there’s no way to determine if the mask provides the protection it is supposed to provide. In addition to the NIOSH approval, when N95 masks or other respirators are manufactured to be marketed to the healthcare field, they need approval from the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), just like all healthcare equipment and supplies.

Following different filtration standards used in other countries or continents, different names and qualifications are given to respirators. However, certain respirators manufactured under those classifications can be considered equivalent to the N95 masks:

  • KN95 masks: these masks are manufactured according to the Chinese filtration standard. But, the similarity in the names of these respirators goes beyond just the name: the ‘KN’ means the respirator isn’t resistant to oil, and the ‘95’ means it can filter out a minimum of 95% of the airborne particles in the air. Although the standards are slightly different, in most cases these are considered a good substitute for N95 masks.
  • FFP2 masks: these are respirators manufactured following the European filtration standard, and even though they’re also considered the equivalent to N95 masks, the names are entirely different. In this case, all the respirators in the classification are called ‘FFP’ (filtering facepiece) followed by the numbers 1, 2, or 3, which indicate the level of filtration the respirator offers. FFP2 masks are respirators with an aerosol filtration rate above 94% and an internal leak rate of 8%.

3M is one of the most reliable brands for N95 masks, and if you’re looking to obtain some, the models 3M 8210, 3M 8511, and 3M 1860 are great 3M N95 masks.

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