Respiratory protection in the workplace is particularly important right now, besides all the regular precautions that should be taken. We’ve been facing a new danger in the form of a respiratory virus, which is why face masks right now are so important, and learning about them as well.
It’s important to be comfortable while wearing a mask because that increases the chances of a wearer maintaining the face mask on and ensuring protection for themselves and everyone around them. Different face masks are needed in different settings, so in this article, we’ll discuss the most breathable ones for each situation.
Let’s start with the healthcare setting
Respirators are masks used in many different work settings where respiratory hazards are present. They filter out very small particles to prevent the user from inhaling them, protecting them from the potential illnesses that can be developed as a result from this exposure.
N95 masks, also known as N95 respirators, are some of the most popular types of respirators. Right now, they’re considered the best masks for virus protection in healthcare settings, as they offer more antiviral filtration properties than most face masks available.
The name of these respirators indicate that they can filter out a minimum of 95% of the non-oil based airborne particles in the air, since the N means they’re not resistant to oil and the 95 indicates their filtration rate. This is all according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), an institution that regulates respirators in the United States.
This means N95 masks can filter out a wide variety of particles, like dust, coal smoke, pollen, and bioaerosols, like the flu virus and the new coronavirus. Among the many uses these respirators can have, right now their use in the healthcare field is the most important one, as they can effectively filter out our biggest threat.
How does breathability vary in respirators?
To be approved by NIOSH, besides meeting their filtration requirements, N95 masks need to also meet breathability standards. This is an important feature in face masks, as workers usually wear them for long work shifts and, if they’re comfortable with them on, they’re more likely to not take them off.
The breathability of a respirator is inversely proportional to the breathing resistance the wearer experiences with the mask on. The filter material most N95 masks use is a non-woven fabric with multiple holes that trap the particles, but if these holes are too small, they can make breathing difficult.
To increase the size of these holes and improve breathability, while also ensuring good filtration, manufacturers combine this physical filtration with electrostatic filtration. They add electrostatic charges to the filter media, which attract both large and small particles with the opposite charge, neutralizing and trapping them. The combination of these two methods ensure both filtration efficacy and breathability to the user.
Another strategy manufacturers use to increase breathability is to add an exhalation valve. Not all N95 masks have these, and regular ones filter out the air as it’s being both inhaled and exhaled, protecting not only the wearer from harmful particles, but also those around them from the pathogens they might be releasing into the air.
Exhalation valves only filter out the air as it’s being inhaled, protecting the user, but the breathing resistance is decreased by not filtering out the exhaled air. This means that these masks, although they’re more comfortable, are not effective to control the spread of COVID-19.
Which respirator models are the easiest to breathe in?
For respirators, which includes both N95 and KN95 masks, as well as other types of respirators, you can follow the explanation above and decide which model works best for you. For example, several 3M N95 mask models contain electrostatic media filters, which you can check on the specs for each model, such as the 3M 8210 and the 3M 1860.
Another breathable option are N95 masks with valves, such as the 3M 8511 model. However, as we explained, these are not recommended for COVID-19 protection, as well as healthcare settings where a sterile field is needed.
Breathable options for everyday use
Cloth masks are the recommended choice for everyday use in the USA, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These masks can be used by kids above the age of 2, and are considered enough for protection in settings where exposure to the virus isn’t as high, and where social distancing can be maintained.
There are countless options and models for these masks, which you can find easily for sale online with options to buy in bulk and wholesale. And, although most people don’t experience difficulty breathing with them on, when you’re first starting to use them they can be a little uncomfortable.
Breathable options are available online for their use during physical activities, with stores specializing in breathable cloth masks for working out and exercising. These are usually made with flexible fabrics to ensure they stay in their place, and well as breathable but still protective ones.
In this link you can look at an article published by Rolling Stone with some good cloth mask options for exercising.
It’s important to remember that medical-grade masks and supplies, including gloves, gowns, sanitizer, surgical masks, face shields, and respirators, are currently critical supplies for healthcare workers. For the general public, cloth masks represent enough protection when used in combination with social distancing measures. It’s important to stay protected at all times, so finding the best choice for you and your situation is important.