N95 Respirators, Surgical Masks, & Cloth Face Masks: What’s the Difference in Terms of Coronavirus Protection?

N95 Respirators, Surgical Masks, & Cloth Face Masks: What’s the Difference in Terms of Coronavirus Protection?

Only a few months ago, N95 respirators and surgical masks were mostly used by workers whose jobs required them. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, it's not unusual to see people wearing a variety of face mask protection options. This raises a few questions: What's the difference between N95 respirators, surgical masks, and cloth face masks? And what kind of coronavirus protection do they provide?

N95 Respirators

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." These marks are typically disposable. You may have also heard people refer to them as filtering facepiece respirators.

Intended to be tight-fitting, N95 respirators filter both large and small airborne particles. In fact, NIOSH (the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health) tests and certifies them to ensure that they filter out 95% of particles. Some manufacturers even offer a version of N95 respirators that are not only certified by NIOSH but also cleared by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) for fluid resistance.

coronavirus protection

Wearers must pass a fit test to confirm that their N95 mask properly seals to their faces. OSHA encourages employers to prioritize this fit-testing for workers using N95 masks in high-hazard situations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

N95 respirators offer more coronavirus protection than surgical masks or cloth face mask options. But due to short supply, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has asked that the general public refrains from buying and using these masks in order to save the supply for healthcare workers and people with health issues that make them susceptible to severe cases of COVID-19.

Surgical Masks

Also known as medical masks, surgical masks are disposable, loose-fitting coverings that go over a person's nose and mouth. As the name implies, 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, which in turn protects patients from potential contamination and infection.

With all that said, the CDC still does not consider surgical masks respiratory protection. Why? Because they don't provide reliable protection from inhaling small airborne particles. Still, the FDA has cleared surgical masks for use in healthcare settings.

coronavirus protection

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 factors such as bacterial filtration efficiency, differential pressure, flammability, synthetic blood resistance, and even sub-micron particulate filtration efficiency.

Cloth Masks

In light of the limited supply of N95 respirators and surgical masks, the CDC has recommended that people wear cloth face coverings whenever they go out to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 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.

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 spread 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.

coronavirus protection

It's worth noting that, while cloth masks can indeed help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and numerous other illnesses, they're not considered personal protective equipment (PPE). But whereas N95 respirators and surgical masks are meant 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! Let's wrap up this article with a few useful tips that you can apply to any coronavirus protection option.

  • Try your best not to touch your mask while wearing it. If you do accidentally touch it, wash or sanitize your hands as quickly as possible.
  • Do not touch your face when removing your mask. More specifically, avoid touching your mouth, nose, eyes, or the front of the mask.
  • After you have removed your mask, wash your hands immediately.
  • Regularly sanitize your mask in a washing machine.
  • Use masks with more than one layer 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.
  • Remember that cloth face masks are not a proper substitute for N95 masks.
  • Wearing a cloth face mask is one of the most important precautions you can take when it comes to coronavirus protection. But it's still important to practice other measures, such as frequently washing your hands and maintaining six feet of distance between you and others.

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