With how challenging it has been to secure N95 masks, many people have not had the choice but to use alternative mask options. Are KN95 masks good? What about cloth and surgical masks?
Do Face Masks Provide Protection from COVID-19?
People worldwide are wearing various face masks, including surgical, cloth, face mask shields, N95 respirators, and KN95 masks. Online and in-person, we have seen the use of other creative face coverings that might not be protective.
Even professional health care workers in the same facilities may wear different face coverings as personal protective equipment (PPE). This may be due to a function of a particular job description or because of supply problems. PPEs also include gloves, paper, or cloth gowns tied in the back, caps, and booties. These protective articles limit the exposure of health care workers and patients to the possibility of infection.
As the coronavirus escalated in the early months of 2020, health care professionals wore N95 and KN95 masks. More often, though, they used only the surgical masks when working in shared areas. These shared areas include reception desks, gift shops, charting areas, and break rooms.
By late summer, many care providers only wore surgical masks, even during patient care. This was primarily because the N95 and KN95 respirators were in short supply. In response, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) used the Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) tool to make surgical masks widely available and justify using them.
Health care providers routinely use PPE to supply a physical barrier against bodily fluids and large or small airborne particles. The level of protection required by a health care worker and a patient or client varies. The factors depend on which face covering will be most effective at preventing the spread of respiratory droplets, airborne particles, and other fluids.
Although authorized for use as PPE in health care settings, until the availability of FDA-approved N95 and KN95s meet demand, surgical masks are temporarily the alternative medical solution. According to the FDA, the authorized surgical mask “may be effective” for the duration of the pandemic or until a decision is made to revoke the authorization.
NewRain helps you take care of your staff with the availability of authorized and adequate PPE in the most convenient way possible. This worldwide flux’s long duration has challenged us to provide our frontline healthcare workers with safety and confidence.
The Effects of Coronavirus
Let’s be honest. Ever since the current coronavirus came to the general public’s awareness, people all over the world have been uneasy and opinionated.
The confusion around what face mask is best, N95 and KN95, or surgical vs. cloth masks, still spark disagreements. You will indeed find biased reports and side-takers who often depend on emotional attachments to beliefs rather than factual research.
Fear of the coronavirus is fueled by several factors, including concerns related to heartbreaking stories of illness and lack of resources. Many people have lost their loved ones to the virus, while others have lost them because of the lack of medical care access. With the ongoing outbreaks and deaths, many are still nervous.
People have been shocked by the disorientation of social distancing and the separation from family members, schools, churches, and community groups. We were all baffled by the hoarding of medical supplies such as hand sanitizer, examination gloves, and alcohol wipes from store shelves.
Amid the confusion and arguments, there rose biased speculation that the Chinese government poorly handled the virus’s initial presence, propelling the outbreak quickly into a worldwide pandemic.
The World Health Organization (WHO) advised that if the coronavirus “is spreading in your community,” you can enhance your safety and the safety of others by taking precautions. These provisions include social distancing, wearing face masks, and vigilant hand cleaning, among other recommendations.
Some of us are unsure how to comply with the WHOs advice to keep rooms “well-ventilated” in the middle of winter (or summer), “avoid crowds,” and “coughing into a bent elbow or tissue” to prevent the spread of small particles from person to person.
Whether in public or healthcare settings, there will always be questions, concerns, and differences of opinion; therefore, you need to know the facts—not hearsay.
How N95 Masks Work
Let’s start with the most effective protection level, where healthcare workers and patients are vulnerable day in and day out. Both the N95 and KN95 respirator masks filter 95% of airborne particles.
Manufacturer’s layer synthetic material to form the masks and are intended to cover the mouth and nose. They are designed using a seal to prevent the transfer of aerosol particulates between patients and healthcare workers. These masks have high-quality filtering properties that limit the spread of coronavirus on small air particles.
An N95 respirator is a mask that is a subset of N95 Filtering Face-piece Respirators (FFRs), which achieves a facial fit around the nose and mouth and extra-efficient filtration of airborne particles. The masks are tested for fluid resistance, particulate and bacterial filtration efficiency, flammability, and biocompatibility.
Some people claim that since the coronavirus is super tiny, at 0.1-micron diameter, wearing any mask will not protect the wearer or others from exposure. That argument stems from misunderstanding how N95 respirators work. Rigorous testing by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) approves filters that use particles that simulate a 0.3 micron in size. These particles are the most likely to pass through the filter.
When a person who has tested positive for coronavirus talks, coughs, or sneezes, the airborne particles contain water and mucus, which carry most other microscopic critters with them, proportionately large drops of fluid containing viruses quickly become trapped and filtered by the mask’s filtration fibers.
Additionally, and more effectively preventing the passage of these 0.1-micron viruses, electrostatic charges in the fibers attract particles that stick to them. Even the smallest particles continuously vibrate due to Brownian motion and are likely to hit filter fibers and become trapped.
An N95 respirator worn correctly will filter 95 percent of particles, most of which are larger than 0.3 microns and get stuck in the mesh. The mask fibers’ electrostatic charges also snag particles smaller than 0.3 microns (including coronavirus).
The N95 is the only mask approved by the United States National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The approval comes from the non-valved design with a tight-fitting face seal. This model provides the highest protection level and is essential for healthcare workers who work in close contact with patients.
Are N95 Masks Reusable?
While an N95 mask should be replaced frequently, the CDC has released guidelines for cleaning N95 masks for reuse, if not after every use. While N95 should be replaced if it became contaminated with blood or other bodily fluids, users should avoid touching the inside of the mask and use sterile gloves when placing the mask on and taking the mask off to prevent any germs from getting on the inside of the mask and transferring to the wearer’s face.
To clean the mask, a few different techniques can be used. However, keep in mind that the face mask is at risk for damage caused by the cleaning agents after every use. If possible, only wear the N95 mask once before disposing of it. The common ways to disinfect N95 masks include:
- Vaporous hydrogen peroxide (VHP)
- Ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI)
- Moist heat incubation
To Valve or Not to Valve
FFP masks with and without valves help workers in many environments, such as painting and construction. They protect wearers from respiratory hazards such as dust and mist. While many FFPs are not approved to filter the coronavirus, the N95 respirators used in healthcare offer workers similar pros and cons.
N95s without valves can cause sweating, irritation, and claustrophobia for some people and fog up glasses, face shields, and goggles. N95s are still the best protection for patients because they do not allow the provider’s exhaled air to spread to others.
The valved respirator releases exhaled particles into the environment. In turn, your breathing is more comfortable, and the mask regulates the flow rate of inhaled and exhaled air. N95s with valves are not recommended for healthcare providers because the masks only protect the worker and not the patient.
It is crucial to wear non-valved N95 respirators when working with patients who are sick with coronavirus. Those at higher risk of contracting and succumbing to severe ill effects should also wear these masks.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) request the general public to avoid using N95 respirators. This specific request ensures that critical supplies will continue to be available for health care workers and first responders.
Using N95 masks from international labs can put health care workers and patients at risk if the covers are not vetted through specialized PPE testing. Using a machine identical to the one NIOSH uses in its certification process, ECRI offers testing and consultation recommendations. These consults are provided to hospitals and healthcare systems to ensure KN95, N95 masks, and other PPE meets industry standards.
What Makes N95 Masks Better than Surgical Masks?
In the absence of N95 masks due to short supplies, a surgical mask is the next best option. Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), said in February 2021 that it might be best to wear two surgical masks unless healthcare providers have N95s.
The CDC outlines vital differences between surgical masks and N95 masks:
- N95 masks must be tested and approved by NIOSH, while the FDA can clear surgical masks for healthcare use.
- N95s limit exposure to small airborne particles and large droplets, while surgical masks are fluid resistant, only protecting against large droplets.
- N95s are fit tested to contour the face and adhere tightly when they are worn properly. Surgical masks fit loosely, with only the ear loops to keep the face-covering in place.
- N95s have a seal check requirement, while surgical masks are not made to seal.
- N95s filter out at least 95 percent of airborne particles, while surgical masks do not protect the wearer at the same level and allow the inhalation of small airborne particles.
- N95 masks have minimal leakage when worn correctly, while surgical masks leak at the outside edges during user inhalation.
Intended for single-use, surgical masks are a viable option when an individual does not have the opportunity for an N95 mask. While surgical masks effectively block large particles, they do not have the means to protect the wearer from smaller air particles that may come from coughing or sneezing.
Additionally, the loose fit around the nose does not provide complete protection from germs and bacteria. However, a surgical face mask is better than no face mask and does still offer some protection.
Are Surgical Masks Reusable?
Washing may damager surgical masks, so it is not recommended that a user re-wears this face cover. The CDC recommends that surgical face masks be disposed of after an individual use. If there is no other option for a face covering, then the user should reuse the surgical mask and replace it as soon as possible.
Are Cloth Masks Effective?
Cloth masks are prevalent in public, mainly because airflow is better, breathing is more comfortable, and glasses fog up less. They are sold in different shapes, sizes, colors, and sometimes even personalized to suit wearers’ personalities.
But how effective are they in preventing the spread of coronavirus?
That depends on the cloth’s level of filtration. Cloth, in general, offers an elevated level of permeability and the least amount of protection. Some officials declare that a cloth mask is better than no mask at all. Even still, you will not see healthcare professionals wearing them on the job.
For die-hard cloth mask advocates, we suggest some research that might help you determine what is best for your responsibilities. Healthcare workers must abide by CDC and OSHA requirements to protect patients and themselves from spreading the virus. The general public’s guidelines are loose and generous, allowing people to cover their mouths and noses with really anything.
Researchers submitted a study published in Science Advances which they used optical imaging to measure differences in droplet dispersion through various masks during regular speech.
Speaking through cloth masks such as neck gaiters disperse large droplets into smaller droplets. The process enables particles to remain airborne for more extended periods. In contrast, larger particles sink faster to a level below the transmission. This study suggests that cloth masks may be inefficient at decreasing coronavirus spread than no mask at all.
The values for particulate transmission without a mask were slightly lower than the relative. When speaking through a neck gaiter, the total droplet counts are three to four times higher than knitted, cotton, and valved N95 masks. The N95 respirator and surgical mask were zero and close to zero, with relative droplet counts between 0.0 & 1.0.
Are Cloth Masks Reusable?
Even if cloth masks are not the most effective type of face covering, they are a few options that can be repeatedly reused. To clean cloth face masks, it is recommended that users wash them after each use or, at the very least, clean them each day. To clean a face mask, it is best to wash the face mask in a laundry machine using laundry detergent and hot water. The heat is key to ensuring the face-covering has been thoroughly sanitized.
If the cloth face masks breaks or holes are found, it is best to dispose of that face mask because it can no longer provide the best protection possible.
Does a KN95 Mask Protect the Wearer?
What is a KN95 mask? This is truly a question of are KN95 masks good when compared to N95 masks. When placed next to each other, a KN95 mask and an N95 mask look remarkably similar.
The KN95 mask is not approved by NIOSH, which requires a vigorous process to authorize medical equipment. NIOSH also supports other products vital to preventing the spread of coronavirus. ECRI (Emergency Care Research Institute) reported nearly 70 percent of KN95 masks made in China did not meet NIOSH requirements.
It is essential to know where a particular mask is manufactured. Knowing this reduces the risk of purchasing N95 or KN95 respirators that do not meet US standards for filtering efficiency. Even unapproved KN95 covers could still provide better protection against coronavirus than surgical or cloth masks.
Yet, a KN95 mask is better than no mask at all because it will still better than no mask, and it will provide more protection than a cloth mask. As with all masks, the only way for it to be effective is if the wearer always keeps the mask on and refrains from touching his or her face.
Dr. Eric Cioe-Pena, Northwell Health’s director of global health in New York, said, “the best mask is the one people are going to wear when out of the home; a KN95 is not better than a surgical mask when you keep taking it off.”
Are KN95 Masks Reusable?
How many times can you wear a KN95 mask? Similar to an N95 mask, the KN95 mask is not designed for repeated use. However, the wearer may get more than one use out of the mask when there are shortages of supply if they are careful when removing the mask.
If you are wondering how to clean the KN95 mask, the procedures are the same as the N95 mask. While they are meant for single use, you can clean a KN95 mask using VHP, UVGI, and moist heat incubation. However, keep in mind that you risk damaging the structure and making it less effective every time you clean the mask.
If you are in alignment with the billboards starring masked people saying, “I am doing it for my __________ (sister, mother, grandpa, neighbor, whoever), there is a logical consensus. Wearing at least a cotton or polyester cloth mask is better than a neck gaiter or no mask at all. The most advised masks are still surgical or N95 masks and are especially important for healthcare providers.
If you are interested in protecting yourself, wearing the valved N95 helps allow you to breathe. This is essential to you, but it is not so great at protecting those around you. In contrast, the cloth masks, such as bandanas, are not much protection at all.
In closing, the surgical mask and the KN95s are more helpful in reducing coronavirus spread than cloth masks. As more N95 respirators become available, employers of healthcare workers will re-supply their staff for optimal safety.