What are N95 masks?
N95 masks are a type of respirator with great antiviral properties, considered one of the best face masks for virus protection, which is why they’ve been widely used in the healthcare field. They are a disposable face mask, just like surgical masks, but they are more effective when it comes to protection against viruses.
The name of this mask has a meaning, and it comes from the NIOSH classification for respirators, considered the filtration standard inside the United States. NIOSH stands for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a federal agency that regulates respirators.
Their classification names respirators according to their oil resistance and filtration rate, the first being indicated with a letter and the second with a number. In the case of N95 masks, they’re respirators without oil resistance that can filter out a minimum of 95% of the airborne particles in the air.
For this reason, they can be used for protection against non-oil-based airborne particles, including smoke, pollen, dust, and even certain bioaerosols like the flu virus or the SARS-CoV-2, which is responsible for COVID-19. They have, therefore, many different uses in a variety of work fields, including the healthcare one, particularly during the pandemic. In the medical field, they’re often paired with face shields to add eye protection.
Since NIOSH regulates these masks, their approval is very important at the moment of their distribution. If a manufacturer is producing masks intended to work and be marketed as N95 grade, NIOSH must test them out first and confirm they meet the requirements. If the mask is also intended for the healthcare field, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must also approve them, as we’ll discuss a little later.
These face masks are often confused with KN95 masks, which are very similar to them not only in their name but in their efficacy as well. Regulated under the filtration standard used in China, these are also respirators without oil resistance and a filtration rate of 95%, which is why they can be sometimes used as substitutes for N95 masks if these aren’t available.
What are 1860 masks?
The 3M 1860 mask model is a surgical N95 mask manufactured and distributed by the company 3M. It refers to the specific model of surgical mask created by this company.
The 1860 model is described on the 3M website as a particulate respirator designed to be used as a surgical mask, which means they can protect against airborne bioaerosols. The term “airborne” means that a particle has a size as small as 0.3 micrometers, which gives them the ability to travel long distances through the air. This is a way of transmitting diseases, mainly respiratory ones, caused by airborne microorganisms, known as “airborne transmitted diseases.”
This type of mask is a surgical N95 mask, a specific type of N95 respirator that, besides having the approval from NIOSH for it to be considered an N95 mask, it’s also been cleared by the FDA to be used during surgical procedures in which large amounts of fluids can be released, protecting the healthcare provider against them.
In a technical bulletin 3M published about the difference between N95 masks and surgical N95 masks, they provide a little more information regarding this topic. The main difference surgical N95 masks have with regular N95 respirators is the fluid resistance, which makes them resist penetration by liquids at a high pressure, something that is very important during surgeries and other medical procedures.
For example, a punctured human artery will release blood at a high speed and pressure, and healthcare workers need their mucous membranes on the nose and mouth to be protected from them to prevent the potential transmission of diseases through contaminated fluids. This is the main difference between this model and other 3M N95 masks, like the 3M 8210 and the 3M 8511, which are regular N95 masks.
The technical bulletin helps customers understand the difference between these two types of masks through a chart, where they explain that surgical N95 masks are a mixture between regular surgical masks and N95 respirators. The first are approved only by the FDA, and the second by NIOSH, while surgical N95 masks must be approved by both.
While N95 masks only help reduce particles inhaled by the user, surgical N95 masks also reduce the particles expelled by the wearer and offer fluid resistance, as we mentioned. Therefore, if N95 respirators are used in situations when the worker is exposed to respiratory hazards, like viruses, and surgical masks are used in procedures where fluid resistance is required, surgical N95 masks are used in situations where the wearer is exposed to both respiratory hazards and fluids.
This has been particularly frequent during the pandemic, in which sometimes patients infected with COVID-19 need surgical procedures and the workers need the protection offered by both N95 masks (to prevent infection with the coronavirus), and surgical masks (to prevent them from being in contact with fluids).
So, which one is more effective?
The answer to this question will depend on the end goal and the situation the wearer finds themselves in. For virus protection in healthcare settings where the worker isn’t exposed to fluids at a high pressure, regular N95 masks can be used without a problem. On the other hand, during surgeries and other procedures where that might be a possibility, and when the worker is potentially exposed to COVID-19 or another respiratory virus, it’s best to wear a surgical N95 mask.
Currently, in the USA, shortages of medical supplies are being experienced in many healthcare centers, where obtaining them in bulk and wholesale is difficult. Particularly N95 masks, which were previously easily found for sale online, are hard to find, which is why the general public is encouraged to wear reusable cloth masks in public settings, including kids over the age of 2.