Face mask types can be confusing. All those letters and numbers jumbled together…it’s no wonder the public has found a single mask to talk about nonstop: the N95. The N95 is a happy medium of breathability, practicality, and efficiency. Although it’s not the only one out there (and doesn’t provide the strongest protection available against COVID-19) it’s now a household name thanks to such factors.
But what about respirators outside the N-series? Let’s take a look at what exactly sets them apart from the beloved N95 and why you aren’t hearing about them nearly as much.
N-, R-, and P-series respirators
First, let’s look at the three different series, N, R, and P, and see what makes them different.
Respirators that are rated N are not resistant to oil.
N95: Filters 95% of airborne particles
N99: Filters 99% of airborne particles
N100: Filters 99.7% of airborne particles
N-series masks can be decontaminated and reused following the CDC guidelines, although its durability is said to be eight hours in a dirty workplace. In a contaminated environment, high filter loading decreases its durability. In order to reuse these masks safely, strict protocols must be observed.
R-series respirators are somewhat resistant to oils and stop airborne particulates as well as some oil-based pollutants. R-series are classified as R95, R99, and R100 based on their filtering efficiency.
As with the N-series, the numbers on these respirators reflect 95%, 99%, and 99.7% filtration efficiencies, respectively.
R-type face masks are only single shift masks or can be used for eight hours of continuous or intermittent use. It is not recommended to use these masks beyond a single shift or more than eight hours.
P-series respirators are oil-proof. They protect against airborne particles as well as oil-based pollutants. Once again, the P-series is classified as P95, P99, and P100 on the basis of 95%, 99%, and 99.97% filtering efficiency.
P-series masks, unlike R-type masks, have a longer shelf life of up to 40 hours. If you want to reuse these masks, make sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions. P-series face masks are expensive, not readily available, and really only recommended for industrial use.
For occupational uses, NIOSH has very strict standards for testing and approval of respirators. NIOSH approved respirators are labeled with ‘NIOSH,’ the series name and protection it offers (e.g., N95, P99), the manufacturer’s name, and the part number. If respirators don’t have these markings, then they are not NIOSH certified.
Points to remember for selecting face mask types
- If your work environment does not contain any oil-based particles, you can use any series (i.e., N-, R-, P-).
- If oil particles like lubricants, glycerine, and cutting fluids, etc. are present, use an R- or P- series filter. Keep in mind that N-series filters cannot be used where oil is present.
- If oil particles are present in the work environment and a filter must be reused, only use P-series filters.
- The filtration efficiency (95%,99%, 99.7%) can be selected depending on how much filter leakage is acceptable. The higher the filter efficiency, the lower the leakage.
- Masks from all three series must fit securely to provide full protection. There should be no gap between the wearer’s skin and the edge of the mask.
Why are the R- and P-series not as popular as the N95 for coronavirus protection?
All three series meet or exceed NIOSH efficiency performance criteria for protection against infectious agents like tuberculosis-causing bacteria and SARS, including coronavirus. Health care settings are generally free of oil particles that can degrade filter efficiency.
The N95 gets more attention than the R- and P-series because it meets all the requirements in a healthcare setting and can also be decontaminated and reused, if necessary. R- and P-series masks, otherwise suitable for industrial usage, have limitations of a single shift and 40 hours (though this also depends on the manufacturer’s instructions). Also, although P100 face masks are more efficient and durable than the N95, they are far more expensive.
- Hygiene, damage, or breathing resistances affect the service life of all three categories. All types of filters should be replaced in case of damage, soiling, or breathing difficulties.
- These respirators do not supply oxygen. They must not be used in an oxygen-deficient atmosphere.
- They cannot protect against particulates like vapors and gases.
- They don’t protect the skin or eyes and cannot be used in atmospheres where contaminants cause irritation to the skin and eyes.
Examples of popular R- and P-series face masks
This disposable respirator has a collapse-resistant shell to increase its durability. It can be used to protect against some oil and non-oil-based particles and is ideal for operations like grinding, sanding, sweeping, and machining. It can be used in healthcare settings for protection against infections and is economical compared to the P-series. It meets OSHA and CSA standards.
It is a NIOSH approved disposable facepiece respirator for organic vapors and particulates.
It has a balanced design and is suitable for intermittent use. It is typically used in construction, transportation, and agricultural settings. Again it can be used in healthcare settings, but it is more expensive than commonly used respirators in healthcare settings like the N-95 or FFP2.
To sum it all up
While the N95 has quickly become a household name, few in the general public have heard of the P- and R-series respirators. Availability, suitability, practicality, and cost are all contributing factors explaining why this has happened and why P- and R-range face masks are unlikely to match up to the favored N-range masks during this coronavirus pandemic.