You can barely step outside the house now without seeing someone wearing a face mask. But with so many different types in use, it’s easy to get a little mixed up about what type is best for different sections of society. When in doubt, remember that there are two main branches when it comes to face masks: respirators and “regular” face masks. In this article, we’ll learn more about each version and its subtypes.
What are respirator masks?
Respirators are a type of face mask, but they differ from regular face masks in many significant ways. Most importantly, they are evaluated, tested, and approved by the NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) and must meet all set standards before they can be distributed. These are what you would expect to see when people talk about a respirator mask for smoke.
NIOSH is the agency responsible for testing respirators before sending them out for public use. Every respirator batch is tested for abnormalities and must pass all safety regulations; if it fails in even one part of the regulation standards test, the mask will be discarded and not sent out for public use.
Types of respirator masks
You may have seen many combinations of letters and numbers thrown around to categorize respirators. Here’s how to make sense of them:
This category includes the N95, N99, and N100 respirators. N-series masks can filter out small particles like dust, volcanic ash, aerosol, and pollen. They are also effective against some liquids.
It is essential to note that N-series masks are not resistant to oil-based particles, hence the “N”, which denotes “not resistant”. The number attached to the mask’s name (e.g., 95) indicates the filter’s efficiency level. For example, an N95 mask can effectively filter out 95% of toxic particulate, whereas an N100 mask can filter out nearly 100% (99.7%, to be exact).
N-series masks are commonly used in areas where there is plenty of dry pollution, like dust, coal, and ash. These masks are not intended to be reusable and should not be shared among users. This is the most common respirator mask for protection against smoke.
R-series respirators are resistant to oil-based particles, hence the letter “R”. They provide effective protection against both oil-based and non-oil-based particles, like oil-based liquid aerosol sprays and pollen. The R-series offers an R95 mask, which can filter out 95% of particles, as well as R99 and R100 versions.
These masks work similarly to R-series masks; they are resistant to oil-based and non-oil-based particles. The difference between P-series and R-series masks is that the latter should only be used for eight hours, while the former can be worn for up to 40 hours within 30 days of use. This is why P-series respirators are more common than R-series ones.
General overview: respirators
Respiratory masks are designed to fit tightly around the mouth and nose area. Unlike other types of face masks, they do not have any leakage around the edges and can provide maximum security from toxic particles.
They are effective against air-borne particles and should be discarded after each use unless otherwise stated. They should not be shared with other users and cannot be washed. If these respirators get wet or contaminated with blood or bodily secretions, they should be thrown away.
Some respirators have exhalation valves. These valves reduce excess dampness and warmth in the mask that comes with exhaled breath. While that is useful to the wearer, there’s some debate over the potential effects to those around the wearer, who could be exposed to the virus if the wearer is an asymptomatic carrier. The mask itself can filter out particles that are larger than 0.3 microns, making it effective against the coronavirus.
Respirators vs. ventilators
Respirator masks are not the same as ventilators. Respirator masks cover your mouth to protect you from external contaminants, whereas ventilators are machines that mimic the mechanism of breathing for you.
Who should wear respirator masks?
Respirators are generally not needed by the majority of the public. They are useful for scientists dealing with toxic chemical fumes or volcanic ash, by construction workers who are continuously exposed to dust and pollution from cement and other construction materials, and by doctors who are dealing face-to-face with coronavirus patients.
As there is a shortage of these masks, the general public should not abuse them. These masks should be left for healthcare workers, and we should be mindful not to drain the stocked supplies.
Apart from healthcare and frontline workers, people who are in contact with coronavirus patients should wear a respirator mask. This can help ensure their protection against the virus, though you must remember that there will always be a chance of the virus passing through the mask and infecting the wearer. Still, a mask can serve as an effective barrier in most cases and reduces the chance of infection.
Where to buy respirators
You can purchase a face mask respirator online, but it may take a while to deliver, and there is no guarantee that the product you receive is genuine.
Alternatively, you can look for a filter mask respirator set at your local pharmacy or grocery store. However, stocks are low, and you may not be able to find what you’re looking for. Luckily, there are many alternatives to respirators that you can use instead.
Regular face masks
Apart from respirators, there are many regular face masks available. These may or may not be effective against the novel coronavirus, and we’ll see which ones are and why.
Types of face masks
Here are the most common types of face masks:
Surgical masks, or procedure masks, are the kind you’d expect to see on TV. Surgeons and healthcare workers wear them all the time, especially when in contact with patients. These masks can help eliminate bacterial and viral transmission between an infected person and a healthy individual.
Surgical masks are loose-fitting and may allow leakage at the sides. They contain multiple filter layers, each of which serves its unique purpose. The outer part of a surgical mask is resistant to liquid contaminants as well as solid matter.
Surgical masks can be worn by fitting the mask’s loops behind one’s ears, or by tying the straps behind the head, depending on the design. Surgical masks are one-time use only and should not be worn for prolonged periods.
Carbon filter masks
Carbon filter masks are a smart alternative to surgical masks and respirators. These masks contain activated carbon filters that can effectively trap dust, aerosol, pollen, air pollutants, and some bacteria and viruses.
Moreover, the mask can be reused if the carbon filter inside is changed. These filters can successfully block out particles larger than 0.5 microns and do not cost much to replace.
Cloth masks are fashioned from a single or multiple cloth layers. These layers are porous and can block out large particles but not small ones, which makes them less effective in the face of bacteria and viruses. They can be made at home and do not follow any strict safety regulations, unlike respirators, which must adhere to NIOSH standards, and surgical masks, which follow FDA rulings. You can, however, wash most cloth masks and reuse them multiple times.
These masks are worn by cyclists and secure the entire mouth and nose region. They can block out air pollution and dust particles, but are less effective when faced with biohazards, like toxic fumes and viruses. Cyclist masks are less prone to leakage than cloth and surgical masks.
Bandanas and t-shirts
Some people, in their desperation to beat the virus and under guidance from the NHS and CDC, have turned to bandanas and cloth t-shirts to cover their mouth and nose. These are the least effective measures that can be taken against COVID-19. Perforations and gaps in these fabrics are often large enough to let more than just viruses in; they allow dust, pollen, aerosols, and ash to pass through, too! If you choose to wear a makeshift mask, observe strict social distancing and wash your hands as often as possible.
Who should wear which mask?
Firstly, cloth masks, cyclist masks, and bandanas do not provide a proper level of protection for medical professionals. These workers should use a respirator or, in cases of extremely low supply, a surgical mask (preferably in combination with a face shield of some kind).
The general public should use cyclist masks, carbon filter masks, cloth masks of two or more layers (possibly also with a filter), or surgical masks, if necessary.