Vaccinations may be going up but don’t drop that mask just yet. Researchers say an N95 mask is still the most effective form of protection as coronavirus concerns continue to linger
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Though Covid vaccinations are currently taking place across the country (and around the world), officials say you shouldn’t be taking off your masks just yet – especially if you’re in crowded places or starting to travel. Even if you have received your vaccine, medical experts continue to promote the wearing of face coverings as an effective way to prevent the spread of Covid-19
Airlines are also still requiring the use of masks when traveling, with FAA guidelines mandating the wearing of face masks in-flight, except for brief periods when eating or drinking. While there are a number of good face mask options for traveling, the most effective face masks according to researchers continues to be a protective N95 mask.
Also sometimes referred to as N95 respirators, these masks are not to be confused with KN95 masks, which have a similar name, but are held to entirely different standards. Once reserved for construction, medical or lab jobs, the best N95 masks are now available to the public, with a number of companies pivoting to manufacturing and selling N95 masks for sale online.
But how does an N95 mask work, and how is it different from a KN95 mask? And is an N95 mask effective against Covid? We break down what you need to know, plus review some of the best N95 and KN95 masks we’ve tested, that you can buy online.
N95 Masks vs. KN95 Masks: Similarities and Differences
Both N95 masks and KN95 masks are made from multiple layers of synthetic material (typically a polypropylene plastic polymer) and are designed to be worn over the mouth and nose. Straps behind your ear help to hold the mask in place. Both masks must filter out and capture 95 percent of tiny 0.3 micron particles in the air (hence the “95” in the names).
“N95 masks offer protection against particles as small as 0.3 microns in size, and while the coronavirus itself is around 0.1 microns in size, it’s usually attached to something larger, such as droplets that are generated by everyday activities like breathing and talking,” explains Shaz Amin, founder of WellBefore (formerly Honest PPE Supply), which sells masks, face shields, wipes and sanitizers on its website. “Due to the multiple layers of non-woven fabric and melt blown fabric in the N95 masks, the strong material makeup of these masks are great at preventing airborne particles from entering through your mouth and nose.”
But how are N95 masks different from KN95 masks? The main difference lies in how the masks are certified. “In general,” says Sean Kelly, founder of New Jersey-based PPE of America, “N95 is the U.S. standard, and the KN95 is the China standard.” Because of this, only N95 masks are approved for health-care use in the United States, even though KN95 masks have many of the same protective properties.
N95 masks must pass a rigorous inspection and certification process from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which is part of the CDC. Companies making KN95 masks, meanwhile, can seek approval from the FDA, through an emergency authorization for a foreign certification which meets the 95 percent filtration requirement. The FDA says the manufacturer of KN95 masks must also provide documentation that the masks and materials used are authentic.
According to Kelly, whose company was among those tapped by Connecticut lawmakers to provide personal protective equipment to frontline workers in the state, certification of KN95 masks include a requirement on “fit testing,” which tests the air inside and outside of the mask, as well as how the mask fits around your face. The N95 masks do not have these requirements to meet their standard.
Still, he says, “N95 mask requirements are a bit more stringent regarding the pressure drop in the mask during breathing in, which makes the N95 more breathable than most KN95 masks. The N95 masks have similar requirements for exhaling. These requirements,” Kelly says, “make the N95 mask a bit more advanced with the overall breathability for users.”
Keep in mind, the certifications mentioned above only refer to the country in which the standards and regulations were created, not where the masks are made. Most N95 masks are still made in China. Similarly, the CDC has authorized the use of KN95 masks as a suitable alternative to N95 masks for its response to Covid-19.
“The KN95 is practically equivalent to N95 in every aspect,” says Amin. “Customers seem to believe that the N95 is superior at blocking airborne particles, but the KN95 is just as good, if not better,” he insists. “Many N95 [masks] are also made in parts of China and Asia so the notion that all N95 are U.S.-created is inaccurate as well.”
The FDA has released a list of approved KN95 masks here. You can view the CDC list of approved N95 masks here.
What Does an N95 Mask Protect Against?
According to a report cited by National Center for Biotechnology Information, part of the United States National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health, N95 respirators have two main advantages over simple cloth coverings or surgical masks. First, the report found that N95 masks are more than 95 percent efficient at filtering 0.3-μm particles — particles that are even smaller than the droplets created when talking, coughing, or sneezing — making them an effective way to filter out germs and bacteria. The study also found that N95 masks often fit better over the face and around the neck, ensuring that droplets and particles do not leak around the mask. “Even if N95 filtration is unnecessary,” the report states, “N95 fit offers advantages over a loose-fitting surgical mask by eliminating leakage around the mask.”
The main reason for the N95 mask’s popularity is efficacy, Kelly says. “We know they work and have been used for decades in both health-care and industrial environments,” he says, citing their use in everything from hospitals to labs to construction sites. “When a firefighter risks their life to go into a burning building, they go into that building wearing all the lifesaving gear,” Kelly continues. “They do this to not only protect their own life so they could save others, but to also go home to their family and keep doing what they are dedicated to do. Frontline health-care workers and those who have close contact with others are no different than firefighters when it comes to taking all necessary means to protect themselves from contracting Covid-19. The first and foremost safety precaution for a health-care worker to take is to wear a NIOSH-approved N95 face mask.”
Note: the FDA says N95 masks are not designed to be used by children or people with significant facial hair. One of the main benefits of an N95 mask is its ability to secure a tight seal around the face; the FDA says a child’s face or a face with a beard will not allow the mask to offer the same protection.
Another thing to remember: “They are not a magic bullet,” cautions Mia Sultan, CEO of the independent preventative-care company N95 Mask Co. “While [N95 masks] offer increased protection, they are not a replacement for social distancing, hand hygiene, and limiting person-to-person interactions whenever possible.”
Are N95 Masks Reusable?
N95 masks are not meant to be reused. “To my shock and dismay, some people tell me they wear the same mask for days or even a week without changing,” Kelly says. “That is not only stupid, but extremely dangerous, especially if their mask was not decontaminated by one of the newer decontamination machines.”
Unlike cloth face coverings, which can be machine-washed and worn dozens of times, the best N95 masks are only effective when worn once or twice. You should discard the masks immediately afterward; they are not meant to be washed and reused.
Per FDA guidelines, discard your N95 respirator by placing it in a plastic bag and put it immediately in the trash. Wash your hands after handling the used respirator
Are KN95 Masks Reusable?
KN95 masks, meantime, are meant for one-time use as well, though Amin says some studies are coming out that show that some KN95 masks could be effectively reused.
“What was more interesting,” he adds, “is that they said when they reused the mask after spraying it with ethanol, air drying it and then vacuum drying it, it showed effective filtration after that as well.”
How to Tell Fake N95 Masks vs. Real N95 Masks
There are some precautionary steps you can take to determine if the masks you are buying are counterfeit. Kelly suggests six things to look out for, which may suggest a “fake” or uncertified N95 mask:
- The NIOSH approval stamp is either missing or spelled wrong on the face of the mask.
- The mask has ear loops instead of headbands (headbands are used for a tighter fit).
- The TC approval number is not listed on the face of the mask or headband.
- The company claims approval for use by children.
- There is a presence of decorative add-ons.
- The manufacturing lot number is not visible on the face of the mask.
The CDC’s website has more tips on how to spot counterfeit N95 respirators here.
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