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Do N95 Face Masks Actually Work?

Do N95 Face Masks Actually Work?

Are N95 Masks Effective Against Covid-19?

Personal protective equipment has been in short supply ever since COVID-19 (otherwise known as the coronavirus) became a global pandemic. N95 masks, in particular, is one of the PPE (personal protective equipment) employed to help stop the transmission of airborne disease. But, do they actually work to prevent you from catching COVID-19?

It should be noted that the Center for Disease Control does not recommend using N95 masks when you're not working. Why? Because they need to be kept in supply for healthcare workers who are directly exposed to the virus every single day. Unfortunately, there aren't enough of these masks for everyone. It's the age-old issue of uncoordinated supply and demand.

But let's answer the question. COVID-19 is spread primarily through respiratory droplets from coughs and/or sneezes. So, yes, these masks do work to decrease your risk of infection.

With that being said, the best solution is for you to stay at home. Do not go to crowded public gatherings — no matter what your friends might be telling you. Ensure you wash your hands consistently and in the right way. If you'd like, you can follow the 20-20 rule that some businesses have implemented. This means washing your hands every 20 minutes, for 20 seconds. But, if you're staying home, you shouldn't need to do this so religiously.

The biggest argument for wearing an N95 mask is because the coronavirus has a two day to 14 day incubation time before you see symptoms. Of course, you should be avoiding people who are sick, but you might not even realize that someone has it since the incubation period is so long. Therefore, the most effective way to contain the spread is to be tested for COVID-19.

The Overview

N95 masks or respirators are worn on your face (as you know) to capture minute particles of pollution before they can come into contact with your respiratory system. Whether they work is a very controversial topic since there is evidence to suggest both sides of the argument. But none of it is comprehensive.

NIOSH (the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety) has rated N95 masks 95% (hence the name) on the filtration efficiency scale. Generally, they are used by people who want to protect themselves from dust and other air pollution. If you've ever been to China, you'll have seen people wearing these in most cities since the air quality is so poor.

The Effects of Pollution on Your Health

Unsurprisingly, pollution can increase your risk of heart disease, lung cancer, acute respiratory diseases, chronic respiratory diseases, and even stroke. Not to mention that those with asthma can have pretty bad attacks when in a polluted area. Here, smaller particles are far worse since they can get further down in your system before they're caught.

Particles that are smaller than 2.5 microns are the most dangerous. Why is that? Well, they can get to the very bottom of your lungs without being caught.

If you inhale a lot of PM2.5 (aka, the size we've just talked about) you might suffer through the following acute symptoms:

  • Sneezing
  • Respiratory irritation
  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing
  • Runny nose

For those of you with asthma, it might cause you to have an attack.

Of course, it's then not a surprise when long-term exposure to PM2.5 pollution can increase the likelihood of you having to go to the hospital for cardiovascular and respiratory problems.

PM10 pollution measures between 2.5 and 10 microns. Generally, these won't get as far into your respiratory system because they're too big. Not to mention that there are fewer of them in the air.

If you're concerned about the air quality near you, just search for your city here.

Is My N95 Mask Good?

Unfortunately, the answer isn't as straight forward as I'm sure you wish it was. For your N95 mask to do its job, the air has to pass through the filter. This may sound obvious, but you'll be surprised at how many people aren't aware that there's a wrong way to wear a face mask.

So, what's the right way then? Well, you need to ensure that the mask is properly sealed to your face. Otherwise, air will surpass the mask and go through the gaps, rendering it useless.

Typically, N95 masks come with elastic straps that go over your head to hold it tightly to your face. The metal nose grip (covered in foam) is then adjusted to form the complete seal.

Try buying one that has a "soft lip" since it will plug all the little gaps around the seal.

They Filter:

  • Dust
  • Bacteria
  • Viruses
  • Allergens
  • Pollution

They Do Not Filter:

  • Gases
  • Oil-based substances (their filtration rating goes below 50% when looking at oil-based substances)

Non-Vented VS Vented

They are far comfier than the non-vented N95 masks and are just a fraction more expensive. Put simply, the vent allows your exhale to exit without heating or condensing on the inside of your mask. Some people believe that the vent makes the mask better but that isn't the case. It's simply there for your comfort.

But the CDC is now saying you should NOT wear a vented mask.

Sorry, Your Beard Should Go

Yup, this is going to be a touchy subject for those of you clinging onto your beards! It has to be said though. In this case, beards do not help. It's impossible to get the best seal when there is a load of hair in the way. With that being said, if you just want to reduce your particle intake, then a poor seal will still help you.

Can I Keep Using The Same N95 Mask?

The thing is, these masks come in a pack of 10. So, they seem to be disposable. However, there are never any instructions for the duration of use. Which, in itself, is pretty confusing, right? Findings have showed that the N95 masks wear out incredibly slowly. Even when they look dirty, the filter still works perfectly. The leakage I found was around the edges. When the dirt gets trapped, the air goes through the filter slower which forces an increased amount of air into the seal.

Make sure you brush out the mask inside if you plan to reuse it. Otherwise, there is a high risk of inhaling the dirty build up.

Let's Have A Look Inside The N95 Mask

N95 masks are used to filter minuscule particles and not necessarily every little speck. So, the filter is actually a tangled mass of jumbled fibers nestled on top of each other. Once air goes through it, the particles bump into the fibers and get stuck.

Not only does the above make it effective, but it also ensures it doesn't clog easily. Hence why that it works just as well even when it's been tarnished.

N99 Respirator Masks

As you may have guessed already by the name of these masks, they have a better filter. While N95 has a 95% filtration rate, these guys have a 99% filtration rate of non-oil-based particles. However, they do have downsides. 

Since they have a better filter, they make use of thicker material to improve the seal. Your lungs have to work harder to breathe which becomes noticeably apparent if you're doing physical activity or you're in a dusty environment.

Then, there's the cost. Generally, you'll pay quite a lot more for these than the N95 masks. If you are interested in an N99 mask the Amston 1811 N99 Mask sells for around $3.50 each.

P100 Masks

The difference between P100 masks is pretty extreme. N95 masks filter non-oil-based particles; the P100 mask is oil-proof (hence the "P"). It is 99.9% effective at filtering all particles .3 microns or bigger, oil-based or otherwise.

In general, most particles you want to protect yourself from are non-oil based. This includes things like diseases, viruses, dust, etc. However, diesel and gas fumes are mostly oil-based and can cause harm.It has been reported that a P100 while sitting in traffic the user couldn't smell a single drop of fuel. It was quite miraculous really!

The biggest downside reported is breathing hard due to physical exertion. Unfortunately, each time you breathe, it collapses around your face and it's less than pleasant for a cloth based P100. The seal is amazing but it does not let the sweat escape so it feels stuffy!  Mostly, they are permanent masks that incorporate replaceable filters. So, bear that in mind when taking my experience into account here.

The Bottom Line

N95 masks work fantastically well for catching viruses, bacteria, pollution, and dust (but it will not protect you 100%, so you could still get infected). Plus, it will continue working even if you're wearing it all day every day. 

N99 masks are great if you want a better filtration rate (arguably, this isn't necessary for the average person).

Remember, P100 respirators protect you from almost anything, but they become hard to wear for long periods.

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