A lot of people around the world have been getting familiar with several medical terms, as well as with the PPE (personal protective equipment) used by healthcare workers as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve probably heard the words ‘face mask’ more than ever this year, and it has a good reason to be. Combining social distancing with the use of face masks has been the main resource for stopping or slowing down the spread of the virus responsible for COVID-19, the SARS-CoV-2.
N95 masks, also known as N95 respirators, have been the most popular disposable face mask available. A lot of people confuse these masks with the KN95 masks but, is there a difference between these two masks? They’re generally used interchangeably, but they’re not the same type of mask. In this article, we’ll discuss the similarities and the differences between these masks, which are being used increasingly across the world.
Let’s start with their similarities. Both masks are often used as PPE for people working in industries like construction, painting, or mining. They’re also very useful for allergies since these masks protect against dust and smoke, and they can be used when houses are getting cleaned or when there are fires around to prevent any allergic reactions or to avoid inhaling these harmful particles.
The confusion between these two masks comes from them having very similar names, and this has a reason to be. Both masks filter out at least 95% of the airborne particles in the air, which is reflected in the second part of their names. The first part of their names, although different, both reflect the nonexistent oil resistance of the respirator. The main difference between these two masks is the regulatory standard their named after.
Respirators can be called N95 respirators only if they meet the requirements established in the classification for respirators made by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). In the United States, this classification is used to name respirators, dictating the efficacy of the filtration of each respirator.
The NIOSH classification is based on a two-part system in which respirators are named with a letter and a number, representing the oil resistance and the filtration rate, respectively. N95 masks are respirators with no oil resistance, indicated by the ‘N’, and with a filtration rate of 95%, indicated by the ‘95’.
This classification is used in the USA, but different countries or continents around the world use other filtration standards. In countries that are part of the European Union, for example, they use the EN 149:2001+A1:2009, while China uses the GB2626-2006. And this leads us to KN95 masks and where they get their names.
Based on the filtration standard used in China, KN95 masks are respirators with no resistance to oil, indicated with the ‘KN’ in the name, and a filtration rate of 95%, as we already mentioned above.
Many experts treat these masks as interchangeable, and, 3M, the most important manufacturer and distributor of respirators in the world, KN95 masks are equivalent to N95 masks when it comes to "filtering non-oil-based particles such as those resulting from wildfires, PM 2.5 air pollution, volcanic eruptions, or bioaerosols (e.g. viruses)".
This means these masks are good options for antiviral purposes, filtering out viruses like the flu or the coronavirus, which are great threats at the moment. Some of the most popular N95 mask models are part of the 3M N95 masks, like the 3M 8210 and the 3M 8511. These are masks that have been widely used in the healthcare field, along with other medical items like surgical masks, reusable cloth masks, or face shields.
Inside the USA, N95 masks used to be easy to find available for sale online, but with the pandemic, they’ve become very scarce and almost no one can buy them in bulk or wholesale. They all need to be approved by NIOSH, certifying that they’ve been tested and meet the requirements for an N95 mask. If they’re intended to be used as medical equipment, they also need approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
However, with the COVID-19 pandemic and the shortages of this item, the FDA has issued several Emergency Use Authorizations (EUAs) for N95 mask models that were previously not approved by them. Many KN95 mask models have also been granted with a EUA and can be used in healthcare settings for virus protection.
The bottom line is that the main difference between these two masks is the standards under which they’re approved. N95 masks are regulated under the US standard, which is the NIOSH classification, and the KN95 masks under the Chinese one. Now, you may ask if these standards are different, and the answer is yes, but the differences are very minimal.
The standard used in China requires the running of a special fit test on humans by the manufacturer, as well as a leakage of air of less than 8%. NIOSH doesn’t require these two things, even though companies might require a fit test to be done in their workers before using these masks, but this is not a requirement made by NIOSH to be approved as an N95 mask. Another difference is how strict they both are when it comes to breathability. N95 masks must meet a stricter standard for breathability than KN95 masks.
The bottom line is that both of these masks are considered to be the best ones for virus protection, and anyone who uses them is enjoying one of the highest levels of protection that can be offered by a face mask.