Remember when the general public was not familiarized with N95 respirators and surgical masks. This actually wasn't too long ago. But thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, it's not unusual to see people donning a variety of face mask protection options. This raises a few questions: What's the difference between N95 respirators, surgical masks, and cloth face mask in terms of coronavirus protection?
OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) defines N95 respirators as "a negative pressure particulate respirator with a filter as an integral part of the facepiece or with the entire facepiece composed of the filtering medium." You may have also heard people refer to them as filtering facepiece respirators.
Intended to be tight-fitting and disposable, N95 respirators filter both large and small airborne particles. They are tested and certified to enusre that they filter out 95% of particles by NIOSH (the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health). Some manufacturers even offer an alternate version of N95 respirators that are not only certified by NIOSH but also cleared by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) for fluid resistance.
To confirm that their N95 mask properly seals to their faces, wearers must pass a fit test. It's imperative that employers prioritize this fit-testing for workers in high-hazard situations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
N95 respirators offer more coronavirus protection than surgical masks or cloth face mask options. But the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has asked the general public to refrain from buying and using these masks so that there is enough supply for medical workers and people with health issues that make them susceptible to severe COVID-19 cases.
Surgical masks are disposable, loose-fitting coverings that go over a person's nose and mouth. They are also known as medical masks. As both names imply, surgical masks are intended to be used by medical workers. Per the CDC, they're fluid-resistant and protect users from sprays, splashes, and large droplets. On the other hand, they also capture any respiratory droplets from the wearer. This protects patients from potential contamination and infection.
With all that said, since surgical masks don't provide reliable protection from inhaling small airborne particles, the CDC still does not consider them as respiratory protection. Still, the FDA has cleared surgical masks for use in healthcare settings.
The ASTM International (American Society for Testing and Materials) has published ASTM F2100-19, a set of standards by which all surgical masks are tested. The ASTM F2100-19 accounts for various aspects: flammability, synthetic blood resistance, differential pressure, bacterial filtration, and even sub-micron particulate filtration efficiency name just a few.
Since N95 respirators and surgical masks are limited in supply, the CDC has recommended that people wear cloth face coverings whenever they go out in public. Each and every one of us should do this, regardless of whether we exhibit COVID-19 symptoms or not — there's substantial evidence that this illness can be transmitted by people who aren't even showing any symptoms. If we all wear face masks, we can substantially prevent the spread of COVID-19.
People primarily transmit COVID-19 by producing respiratory droplets when they talk, sneeze, or cough. Cloth masks and thick or layered neck gaiters can go a long way towards stymying the transmission of these particles. The CDC recommends coronavirus protection in the form of cloth face coverings wherever social distancing is difficult to maintain and especially in areas where significant community-based transmission has occurred.
Cloth masks are not officially considered personal protective equipment, even though they do help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and numerous other illnesses. And while N95 respirators and surgical masks are built to be disposable, cloth masks can be cleaned and reused.
Tips for Optimizing Your Coronavirus Protection
Now you know the difference between N95 respirators, surgical masks, and cloth face masks! Here are a few useful tips that you can apply to any coronavirus protection option.
- Don't touch your mask while wearing it. If you accidentally do this, wash or sanitize your hands as quickly as possible.
- When removing your mask, avoid touching your face — especially your mouth, nose, eyes, or the front of the mask.
- After you have removed your mask, wash your hands immediately.
- Sanitize your mask regularly in a washing machine.
- Use masks with multiple layers of fabric. If you're using a neck gaiter, fold it down to make it twice as thick.
- Ensure that your face covering option fits snuggly but comfortably. It should cover your nose and mouth.
- While wearing a cloth face mask is one of the most important precautions you can take when it comes to coronavirus protection, it's still imperative to practice other measures. Frequently washing your hands and maintain six feet of distance between you and others.
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