Differences Between Masks

Compare Surgical Masks, N95 and Elastomeric Respirators

There are differences between masks that range from somewhat to very effective in infection control. Let’s take an indepth look at:

Mask Comparisons

What is a Surgical Mask?

Surgical masks are loose fitting and designed to keep droplets in, and are intended to keep the wearer from getting others sick. Medical professionals wear a surgical mask to prevent patients on the operating table from being infected with germs and pathogens from them. If the wearer of the mask coughs or sneezes, most of the droplets get caught in the mask. This only works if the mask is changed frequently and disposed of safely. In surgery, doctors must change their mask at least every two hours. If a mask of this type is worn repeatedly, it loses its effectiveness.

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How Well Does A Surgical Mask Work For Virus Protection?

Wearing a surgical mask can protect you against droplet and smear infections, but to a limited extent. A surgical mask does not filter very small particles in the air that may be transmitted by coughs and sneezes. Surgical masks also don’t provide complete protection from contaminants because of the loose fit between the face mask and your face.  Coronavirus particles measure 0.1 micron, as opposed to the 0.3 micron blocked by most masks. That mean that the coronavirus particles are smaller than those filtered by most surgical masks, so they can help, but there is no guarantee they will block the virus.

What is an N95 Respirator Mask?

N95 Respirator masks are shaped like a cup and are tight-fitting masks. They force all air through a filter designed to block 95% or more of 0.3 micron test particles. They must be properly fitted and tested for leaks before considered safe. This is the type of personal protection equipment (PPE) medical professionals wear when treating patients with a contagious disease. You have to wear a medical grade respirator to protect both the wearer from getting sick, and the patient from the wearer’s germs.

How Well Does an N95 Respirator Work For Virus Protection?

Medical grade respirators with an “N95” designation means that in an optimum setting, the respirator will filter at least 95 percent of particles as the wearer inhales. This is the biggest difference between masks. Depending on the respirator, the particles it can filter could be thousands of times smaller than a human red blood cell. Because of the completeness of the filtration and the tight seal, N95 respirators may be uncomfortable. People may experience difficulty breathing and the Food and Drug Administration warns that people with respiratory and cardiac issues should not wear them without consulting a doctor.

Only masks rated at the level of the N95s Medical Respirators (US) and the FFP-3 filtering face piece (EU) will protect the wearer from droplet aerosols, protein molecules, viruses, bacteria, fungi and spores, highly dangerous asbestos fiber dust, and even highly infectious pathogens such as measles or tuberculosis.

To see mask details “at a glance” please check out this chart from the CDC.

What is Melt Blown Fabric?

The filtration technology in surgical masks and N95 respirators relies on “melt-blown fabric.” This is an expensive process that creates a microscopic plastic mesh made from fibers where each filament has a diameter of less than one micron, in the nano area. This mesh makes up the inner layer of the PPE filter. The more layers a single PPE unit has, the more protective it is against tiny particles. Surgical masks have two to four thin layers, and respirators have five to six layers that vary in rigidity and density.

Are Goggles Required For Full Protection?

Yes! This is critical. Mask and respirator protection only work if all other necessary protective measures are followed at the same time.  Strict hygiene protocol to be followed when putting on a mask is:

  • Wear protective goggles
  • Wear gloves and plastic apron or overall
  • Practice proper disposal of possibly contaminated items
  • Regular hand washing
  • All surfaces in all areas systematically disinfected

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