March 17, 2020

N95 Respirators VS Surgical Masks: Is the Winner that Obvious?

Atmotube Masks

Even though people know how a face mask and a respirator look, not many of them know the difference between the two. They both provide protection from the contaminants transmitted through the air, but to what extent? Let’s have a look.

Photo by tam wai

Face Masks

Face masks which are also called surgical masks aim to block droplets of large respiratory particles when other people sneeze or cough. They protect the nose and mouth from accidental splashes of blood, secretions and body fluids and are commonly used in health care settings.

Wearing such masks prevents the user from touching his/her mouth with contaminated hands.

Face masks are single-use items and shouldn’t be worn for more than 8 hours. Studies show that the longer the user wears one (more than 6 hours), the higher the risk of self-contamination from the respiratory pathogens held on the outer layer of the masks.

Photo by National Cancer Institute

That’s why the user should remove and dispose of the mask properly. The user shouldn’t touch the front side of the mask which might be infected and hold it only by its ear loops when he/she takes the mask off. Finally, they should wash their hands or use hand sanitizer after the mask disposal.

There are major disadvantages to surgical masks:

  • Surgical masks are loose-fitting and don’t provide a tight seal around your face. Leakage from the side gaps results in inefficient protection against air pollutants when the user inhales.
  • They aren’t designed to block fine particles and other air pollutants. If the user wants to stay safe from PM10 and PM2.5 particles contained in wildfire smoke, surgical masks aren’t the best option.

N95 respirators

N95 respirators are tight-fitting masks that block at least 95% of particles from 0.3 microns to 10 microns. This makes it a much more effective protection tool against the wildfire smoke, pollen, dust, mold, and airborne infectious diseases such as tuberculosis. For example, bacterium M. tuberculosis is carried in airborne particles, called droplet nuclei, of 1– 5 microns in diameter which might be filtered by the mask.

Photo by CDC

For this reason, N95 respirators are widely used in construction and other industrial settings that expose workers to dust and small air pollutants. If the mask is used to combat outdoor air pollution, the wearer can reuse the mask until it becomes deformed, visibly dirty or hard to breathe through. In general, we advise changing N95 filters every 25-30 hours.

Surgical N95 respirators are utilised in a medical setting as they protect the healthcare worker from contagious fluids. In this case, the user should dispose of the mask after every usage.

Photo by HH E

The construction of N95 masks is designed to fit closely to the face and decrease the possible airflow leakage from the outside. Of course, people’s faces vary differently and respirators won’t be able to seal all minor gaps on the edges, but a proper seal provides much better protection compared to loose surgical masks.

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