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The Ultimate Face Mask Buying Guide: Types and Certifications

The Ultimate Face Mask Buying Guide: Types and Certifications

Scientific research has proven that wearing masks is one of the best and easiest ways to prevent the spread of illness-causing microbes like COVID-19. Viruses and other sicknesses are transmitted via airborne respiratory particles. You are more likely to contract it if someone coughs or sneezes, however, speaking and breathing can spread the droplets too.

Face masks are mandatory in most public places throughout the world nowadays. Why? Because they trap most airborne particles, thus stopping the spread and flattening the curve.

Having said this, not every mask was created to provide the same level of protection. Don't worry, we're going to go through all the differences so you can understand the various types, the certifications to search for, and exactly where to purchase them.

Ready to get into the details? Excellent! Let's get started.

The Types of Masks

3-PLY Surgical Masks
This is the second most popular type of masks available on the market today. But, you need to be incredibly careful when buying these as there tons of cheap ones that are just single-ply. What does this mean? They won't protect you or anyone else from airborne particles. Genuine 3-ply masks will have a minimum 95% effective filtering rate.

If you are looking for a cheaper, disposable option then these are great. You can even buy them in bulk if you have a lot of people to give them too. You do need to make sure that you purchase from an U.S. FDA-registered supplier, and the mask is a FDA Registered product.

Cloth/Face Coverings
Undoubtedly, these are the most popular. They are nice and simple, as well as pretty cheap. Plus, if you are good on a sewing machine, then you can make these yourself. Just keep in mind that there aren't any official certification ratings on these (especially if they're handmade), so you do not know what the effective filtering rate is. However, you should still choose one with two layers since you'll have far more protection this way.

We recommend you buy one that you can place thin air filters into for an extra layer of safety. These filters are called PM2.5. Having said this, if you're after some serious protection, opt for an NIOSH rated N95 or a Certified KN95 mask that has been tested instead.

NIOSH N95 Masks
This option combines CDC tested reassurance and effectiveness. They are relatively comfortable (as much as face masks can be, of course), lightweight, economical, and breathable.

They will cost you more than the KN95 masks, but that's for a good reason. What's the reason, we hear you ask? Because they come with an official N95 certification for their filtration rate from NIOSH (the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health).

You can find a few different types of N95 masks, including the following:

  • N95-V1 — these look similar to the KN95 face masks which we'll talk about later
  • N95 Cup-style — these are the most common N95 masks

Regardless of the style you decide to buy, the filtration capabilities will be equal. They block out >95% of airborne particles that are as small as 0.3 microns in size. Take a look at our 3M™ Aura 9205+ NIOSH Masks. Viruses typically ride on particles much larger than that so these masks are definitely going to help protect you — yep, even from those who cough and sneeze in front of you.

Face Shields
If you have been inside a grocery store or a hair salon recently, you will have seen the staff members wearing these Safety Face Shields. They are a great extra layer of protection against the aforementioned airborne particles. 

While they aren't recommended if you're around the public for a long time, without also have some form of face mask, they are incredibly useful. Although, you need to remember that they are not a mask replacement (contrary to popular belief). You should be wearing one underneath.

KN95 Masks
There are lots of masks about that have a KN95 certification rating. Some people think that these don't match the U.S. guidelines, but they're wrong. KN95 is the safety standard set by the Chinese government, which has identical requirements to those set by the United States of America officials. So, you can absolutely buy KN95 face masks and be in line with the nation's guidelines. We sell the eimo KN95 mask that has been tested by the NTTPL, a sub-division of NIOSH.

Again, you need to ensure you buy them from a reputable company. You can even find them on the FDA's Appendix A List where NIOSH-approved PPE is found.

Don't worry, we're going to explain that later.

Cartridge Respirators
When COVID-19 first began, loads of people went out to try and get their paws on these cartridge respirators. And don't get us wrong, they work very well when you have the right P100 filters installed (the effective filtering rate is 99% or higher), but, they're designed for industrial environments. It's overboard to wear this type of mask just for airborne droplet protection.

Oh, and they're expensive. So, unless you've got a big budget, you shouldn't really shell out on them for no reason.

Replaceable Filter Masks
These give you a slimmed-down solution to the reusable filtration system of cartridge-style respirators. You need to be careful with these though because they're not all created equal.

Usually, the replaceable filters feature a PM2.5 designation so they meet EPA standards for trapping airborne particles as small as 2.5 microns. We can't guarantee that they will protect you from aerosolized droplets since only N95 or KN95 masks do that.

But they are expensive, costing around $5.00 each, compared to a NTTPL tested KN95 mask for $2.25.

The Certifications

Uncertified
When it comes to cloth masks there really aren't any with certifications. Plus, the surgical masks you'll find online lack an official designation (unless you buy them from a reputable source). But that doesn't mean to say that they won't work. All it means is that no governing body has tested that specific model.

You need to use your own common sense and knowledge here. As we said earlier, opt for a 3-ply surgical mask or a double-layered cloth one. These should be absolutely fine for normal day-to-day interaction with the public (like going to the supermarket, for example).

FDA-Registered
FDA-registered companies are those that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to sell masks in the United States of America. You'll find that many surgical masks aren't advanced certified. However, if you buy them from an FDA-registered company, you know you're getting the best protection.

NIOSH
The general certification you will find on face masks is N95. It's a standard set by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. They are directly responsible for regulations and guidelines for workplace safety.

Any mask that has the NIOSH N95/KN95 certification will be able to filter at least 95% of particles 0.3 microns and bigger. This means they can protect you from airborne droplets that come from coughing, talking, and sneezing.

If your mask says KN95, you are protected from the same things. It's just the Chinese government's regulatory standard. Don't stress, we promise they use the same requirements as the United States of America!

Appendix A
This is the list that the Food and Drug Administration has made to let people know that Chinese-made face masks are approved by NIOSH. The masks listed have been tested against NIOSH standards for airborne particle filtration.

FDA OUK
We have just spoken about Appendix A, the list of approved Chinese-made masks. However, the FDA has its own classifications for personal protective equipment. FDA OUK don't just filter out airborne particles, but they also have an anti-microbial treatment. What's this? The virus is neutralized as soon as it comes into contact.

CDC NIOSH
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevent is a US agency that deals with the nation's health concerns. Since pretty much everyone is wearing face masks now, the certifications reference NIOSH and the CDC so members of the general public can feel like they're in safe hands (which they are).

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