Before the coronavirus outbreak, the term “N99 respirator mask” wasn’t well known outside of medicine and construction. Now, the N99 and its neighbors, the N95 and N100, are the topics of household conversation. The N-series’ claim to fame is their ability to keep out extremely small particles, including most viruses.
However, there are certain things one should know before investing in an N99 mask. In this article, we will cover everything, from the name to how to wear them, and see whether or not the N99 respirator mask is truly useful in the face of COVID-19.
What is a respirator?
Respirators are a type of face covering. Unlike surgical masks, respirators do not hang loosely off the face. Instead, they make direct contact with the skin at all times, which makes them superior to surgical masks in many ways.
The entire rim of the respirator must constantly maintain contact with the wearer’s skin, or else the mask will not offer maximum protection. By ensuring that the mask’s edges stay in direct contact with the skin at all times, N99 respirators make sure that unwanted particles do not enter the covered region in any way.
The N in “N99” stands for “Not resistant to oil-based particles”. This means that the mask’s outer surface is hydrophobic and will not repel oil or lipids.
This has caused a stir among buyers because the coronavirus is a lipid-based (oil-based) particle, which means that the virus is coated in a natural lipid layer called the viral envelope. Not all viruses have lipid envelopes, but the coronavirus does, which is why there has been some skepticism regarding the usefulness of the N99 mask.
The good news is that the second half of the respirator’s name refers to its efficiency, or its ability to block out unwanted particles regardless of their oil-based qualities. Luckily, the efficiency is quite high; the N99 mask can block out 99% of all particles that are larger than 0.3 microns. This includes many viruses, harmful microorganisms, and other undesirable particles like smoke and ash.
The N99 respirator has such an impressive record because of the way it is put together. This mask contains a special filter that is composed of multiple layers that, when packed together, can keep out smaller particles.
N99 mask filter
The N99 mask has multiple layers that are pressed together to create a single, extremely efficient filter. Typically, this is four layers, including an activated charcoal layer that can keep out particles less than 2.5pm in size. This is enough to keep most viruses at bay and can also provide protection from the coronavirus.
However, it is important to remember that no mask is fully resistant to the coronavirus. This is because the virus is extremely small and might be able to find its way through the mask. With an N99 respirator, the chance of the coronavirus or other harmful particles entering is extremely low. Still, it is not zero, and users should practice social distancing at all times and self-isolation if they notice any symptoms.
Who should wear an N99 mask?
Traditionally, N99 masks were worn by construction workers or people who were constantly exposed to pollutants, like volcanic ash. They became popular in the medical world because they can filter out most microorganisms.
Ideally, an N99 mask should be worn by people who are in constant contact with COVID-19 patients. Sadly, there is a severe shortage of N99 masks around the world, due to a spike in demand. Many essential workers, including those laboring day and night in the healthcare sector, do not have access to these masks and may even resort to reusing them.
To fight the shortage, those of us outside the medical and other high-risk professions should look to reusable masks made of cloth instead. When combined with safety measures like good hand washing and social distancing, they can provide the level of protection most people need for day-to-day outings.
But reasons not to wear an N99 face mask are not just logistical. People with non-COVID respiratory illnesses (such as asthma) or those living with a chronic condition that makes it hard for them to breathe (such as cystic fibrosis) should not wear the N99 mask. Breathing through this respirator is much harder, and those who already have respiratory problems may not be able to cope.
Similarly, anybody with a history of cardiac illness should also avoid wearing the N99 mask.
How long do N99 respirator masks last?
N99 respirators should not be worn for longer than eight hours. This is because the filter will fill up with pollutants and small particles over time, making it toxic. Also, breathing may become even more troublesome as the mask’s filter fills up with external particles.
Are N99 respirator masks reusable?
Although the CDC has released some guidelines for reuse of these masks in emergency situations, N99 masks should not be reused or shared with other people if it can be avoided.
After use, the trapped particles, including harmful microorganisms and viruses, could transfer onto the skin and enter the body through the mouth, nose, or any open cuts.
How to wear an N99 mask
Your N99 respirator will come with specialized straps or elastic bands on either side of the filter. Use these to secure the mask over your nose and mouth by tying them behind your ears or head.
Ensure that the N99 mask covers your entire mouth and nose; you can use the metal strip to adjust the fit. There should not be any gaps between the edge of the mask and your facial skin.
People with facial hair may find it difficult to secure the mask against their skin. That’s why if you’re sporting a beard or long goatee you may have to rethink your look until the pandemic is over.
Children and senior citizens may have trouble putting on the mask correctly or breathing through it, so extra care should be taken if they want to wear one.
How to discard an N99 mask
The most sensible way to remove an N99 mask is by using the straps or elastic bands provided at the sides. Untie the straps or bands from behind your head and throw the mask into a trash can. It’s even better to place the respirator inside a disposable plastic bag first and throw it in a large trash can outside your home. This will help prevent the mask from infecting other people.
Do not touch the outside or inside of the mask as you remove it, and wash your hands immediately after disposing of each mask you wear.
Where to buy an N99 mask
You can find N99 masks at most healthcare stores or pharmacies. They may even be available at your local grocery store. However, keep in mind that these masks are short in supply, and may be difficult to come by.
You can purchase these masks online, too, but they may take a while to arrive due to shipping restrictions across the world. Also, there are many generic versions of the N99 mask available online, some of which may be fakes that have not been approved by NIOSH and may not provide adequate protection against the coronavirus.
Before buying a mask, make sure that you are purchasing from a trustworthy source. To make things easier for you, the CDC has a list of reliable suppliers that you can check out.
Is the N99 mask the solution to coronavirus?
N99 respirators are not magic bullets. Wearing an N99 mask will not make you indestructible or immune to coronavirus. Viruses are tricky; they do not discriminate between targets and can find a way through even the most reliable filters. The best way to prevent viral transmission is with social distancing and good hygiene.