N95 Masks

By Darin Williams

Well, it’s official – we are in this disease-conscious society for the long term. It doesn’t look like the use of face coverings, increased handwashing frequency, and social distancing are things we will feel at ease to abandon any time soon; it’s the new norm.

N95

Surprising to some, the use of face masks actually works quite well in helping slow the spread of disease. Mathematically, if everyone wore a mask that was only 50% effective, spread rates of airborne diseases like COVID19 would be reduced by 75%. And even if only 50% of people wore only 50%-effective masks, spread rates would be reduced by almost 44%. For more math fun on masks and the spread of disease, visit www.aatishb.com/maskmath.

A 50%-effective mask, however, leaves a lot of room for improved protection. A simple or cheap mask, worn correctly, can provide at least 50% effective protection, but a high-quality mask can only provide a 50%-effectiveness if worn sloppily. Obviously the best protection is from a correctly-worn, high-quality face mask, such as a protective N95-rated mask (aka N95 respirator), which is over 95% effective (hence the nomenclature) in filtering/blocking particles as small as in the range of 0.3 microns (a micron is about 0.00004 of an inch).

N95 Masks

N95 respirators were first used in industrial applications for decades. Later, to stop the airborne spread of tuberculosis, N95 standards were updated for healthcare settings, and doctors began wearing them when helping tuberculosis patients. Now with the necessity for protection from COVID-19, N95 masks are more in demand than ever.

N95 face masks are, just, really good. They filter virtually 100% of (relatively) large and very small particles; in fact, it can filter particles which are actually much smaller even than the gaps between the fibers of the mask. (Ironically, it’s the medium-sized particles which are hardest to block because of how they are borne along in the air. Since the mask blocks only about 95% of medium-size particles, it is rated as a “N95.”) It does so by attracting particles to adhere to the fibers of the mask, and microscopic particles are quite molecularly “sticky.” (Think of a spiderweb-type situation, rather than a strainer-type situation, and where layers of these sticky fibers add effectiveness in capturing tiny bad guys.) As a final level of particle-protecting defense, N95 masks also use electrostatic attraction to pull particles toward, and to stick to, the mask’s fibers. This makes them about 10 times better at attracting airborne particles as the fibers of non-electrified masks, rather comparable to what it would be like to magnetize the N95’s fibers if the particles were metallic.

There are a few shortfalls of masks of this quality. First, it must be worn correctly and snuggly on the face. (Beards are a particular problem in getting a good seal around the face.) Second, these masks are disposable and can become problematic when worn repeatedly. (They actually are still good at filtering, but the fibers get more and more “clogged” making it harder to breathe through. This can result in “mask fidgeting,” which could allow unfiltered air to get to the nose and mouth.) In fact, trying to decontaminate a N95 mask with most liquids may ruin the electrifying qualities, greatly reducing the mask’s effectiveness.

There are cheap knock-offs of everything, and that includes N95 masks. Here are some ways to spot a counterfeit or uncertified N95 mask:
1. The NIOSH approval stamp is either missing or spelled incorrectly on the face of the mask
2. The mask has ear loops instead of headbands (headbands provide a tighter fit)
3. The TC approval number is not listed on the face of the mask or headband
4. The company claims certified approval for use by children
5. There is a presence of decorative add-ons
6. The manufacturing lot number is not visible on the face of the mask

For more information about the effectiveness of N95 masks, please check out this video:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eAdanPfQdCA

Outpost Construction Supply currently does not have N95 masks available, but we do have KN95 masks. KN95 masks are very similar in quality and effectiveness to the N95 (including the 95% filtering standard) but are manufactured in China. To sum up the difference, N95 is the U.S. standard, and the KN95 is the China standard. Currently only N95 masks are approved for health-care use in the United States, even though KN95 masks have many of the same protective properties.

Please contact your sale representative for price and availability!