A N95 mask, also known as a N95 respirator is a filtering facepiece respirator (FFR), that filters airborne particles. N95 masks are designed to offer a close facial fit, with the edges designed to form a seal around the mouth and nose. Most are meant for use in construction and other industrial jobs, with some designed specifically for the healthcare setting. Whereas masks are loose-fitting and allow for leakage when the user inhales N95 masks minimize leakage when the mask is fitted properly.
Surgical masks provide protection against droplets and large respiratory particles but do not filter smaller particles as well as a N95 mask. Certain N95 masks contain a one-way valve that releases unfiltered air when the wearer exhales.
What is a NIOSH N95 mask?
Respirators and masks are classified and certified by both the National Institute for Occupation Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). A mask that is designated as a NIOSH N95 mask has been evaluated, tested, and approved by NIOSH. These masks will have a NIOSH approval number.
Any mask, including a N95 mask, that does not have a NIOSH approval number on the mask itself or its packaging is not approved by NIOSH. All NIOSH approved masks will also come with information for contacting the manufacturer and instructions for proper use of the mask.
Some NIOSH-approved N95 masks are classified as surgical or medical N95 masks. Surgical N95 masks have not only been tested by NIOSH but also have been cleared by the FDA. The FDA clearance shows that the masks have an acceptable level of fluid and flame resistance. Surgical N95 masks will have labeling regarding the amount of latex contained and may:
have special coatings applied to reduce or kill microorganisms,
be indicated for filtering special amounts of viruses, bacteria, or fungi, or
be intended to prevent specific diseases or infections.
Should the general public wear N95 masks?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) do not recommend N95 masks for the general public so that supplies can be reserved for healthcare workers. Individuals with chronic respiratory, cardiac, or other medical conditions that affect their ability to breathe should check with their healthcare provider prior to using a N95 mask because of its effect on breathing.
While N95 masks with the valve mentioned above may reduce the impact on breathing, the exhaled air is unfiltered and therefore increases the potential risk to others in the same room. N95 masks are not designed to be worn by children or by individuals with facial hair because a proper fit cannot be achieved. However, those wishing to purchase N95 masks can find them at most industrial or healthcare supply stores. A list of respirators certified by NIOSH is available here.
How to Wear N95 Masks
Not all brands of N95 masks are donned (put on) and doffed (taken off) the same way. It is important to refer to the manufacturer’s instructions to ensure you are using the mask properly. However, most N95 masks are donned and doffed in the same way. N95 masks have two straps. The lower strap should be worn around the neck and below the ears with the top strap sitting above the ears and around the crown of the head.
Lastly, the nosepiece should be molded to the user’s nose to ensure a tight fit. A N95 mask should feel secure and snug. If you can still smell odors from outside of the mask, the mask is not fitted properly. Healthcare workers and many industrial workers must pass a fit test prior to the use of a N95 mask in the workplace.
How Long Do N95 Masks Last?
While it is not possible to determine the safe maximum number of uses for a N95 mask, the CDC has made recommendations for the extended use and re-use of N95 masks because of the current shortage. Within industrial settings, a N95 mask can typically be reused throughout the course of an extended work shift. The mask would be stored between uses. If, however, the N95 gets wet, is damaged, or has been exposed to particular pathogens the mask should be discarded and a new mask should be obtained.
N95 masks should never be shared between individuals and should be stored in a safe way. Some suggestions for storage include in a bag, box, or another container that can be marked with the individual’s name and the date. The recommendations made for healthcare settings are similar to those for industrial settings and also allow for the decontamination and reuse of N95 masks.
Why Are They Called “N95 Masks”?
N95 masks are named as N95 masks because the mask filters out 95% of airborne particles during worst-case testing using the most-penetrating particles during NIOSH testing. N95 masks are not resistant to oil. N95 masks are effective in protecting against viruses, bacteria, and fungi when fitted and worn properly. Selecting a N95 mask is much like trying on a shoe, as our facial structure differences lead to different fits of the same mask. A N95 mask that is too small or too large will not be effective in protecting the user from breathing in particles. Even after being fit-tested for a N95, healthcare workers are required to be re-fitted annually to account for any changes such as loss of teeth, the addition of eyeglasses, or weight loss/gain.
In conclusion, the protection provided by a N95 mask depends on many factors including:
Certification and approval by NIOSH
Clearance by the FDA
Proper donning and doffing
Re-use limited until the N95 is no longer effective.
N95 masks offer protection to individuals in the industrial and healthcare settings, but not be as effective for an individual unless proper fit and use are achieved.