With the novel coronavirus, people are scrambling to get their hands on every mask they can find. But will any kind of mask protect you from catching COVID19 or any other viruses or protect you from air pollution?
Here’s a guide to the different types of face mask and what they do.
A facemask is a loose-fitting device that creates a physical barrier between the mouth and nose of the wearer and potential contaminants in the environment. We often see people wearing this kind of mask during flu season or in densely polluted places.
Facemasks may be labelled as isolation, dental, surgical or medical procedure masks. Primarily, they are designed for surgeons and health care workers to avoid spreading their pathogens (bacteria and viruses) into operating fields. At the same time, they protect the wearer from contaminated sprays, splatters and splashes during operation.
Facemasks come with or without a face shield. They are disposable and not meant to be shared.
If worn properly, a facemask helps limit the spread of infection by keeping the wearer’s saliva and respiratory secretions from getting into the air. This is why you are encouraged to wear one when you are sick. Facemasks also keep contaminated hands away from the mouth and nose.
How to Wear a Facemask:
- Colored side should face outwards, with the metal strip at the top.
- Secure the ear loops or the elastic band around your head.
- Adjust the mask to cover the nose, mouth and chin.
- Bend the metal strip along the bridge of your nose for a more secure fit.
Because of their loose fit, facemasks do not provide complete protection from small viral airborne particles.
So unless you are sick, working in a hospital or living in a place like Wuhan (the disease epicenter), a surgical mask isn’t really necessary for you.
Respirators are personal protective equipment (PPE) designed to reduce exposure to airborne contaminants. They come in different sizes and must be selected individually to fit the wearer’s face.
Respirators are available in various forms:
- quarter-mask: covers the nose and mouth
- half-face mask: covers the nose, mouth and chin)
- full facepiece: covers the face from above the eyes to below the chin
- mouth bit respirator: fits the mouth and comes with a nose clip – for escape purposes only
If worn properly, a respirator creates a tight seal around the user’s mouth and nose. This seal forces inhaled air to be pulled through the respirator’s filter material rather than through gaps between the face and mask.
Respirators are vital for a range of industries where workers are exposed to particulate hazards and airborne particles like powders, dust and aerosols – i.e. construction, agricultural and healthcare industry.
Where workers are required to wear respirators, they must be evaluated medically to ensure they can perform tasks while wearing the mask. This is because respirators are uncomfortable and difficult to breathe in. That’s the same reason it is not recommended for general use where infection is not widespread.
Types of Respirators
Respirators are generally classified as either:
- Air-purifying respirators (APRs) – removes contaminants from the air; or
- Supplied-air respirators (SARs) – provides a clean supply of air
APRs are further categorized into:
- Particulate respirators – also called fume, mist or dust masks
- Chemical cartridge respirators – has a chemical cartridge rather than a filter
- Gas masks – has an adsorbent respirator which provides a higher level of protection than a chemical cartridge
- Powered air-purifying respirators (PAPRs)
The N95 respirator mask falls under the particulate respirator category, which are classified based on levels of oil resistance and filter efficiency. Since oil can break down some types of filters, it matters whether the mask is resistant to oil or not.
N Series (not resistant to oil)
R (resistant to oil)
P Series (oil proof)
99.97% or 100%
Benefits of Respirator Mask
N95 masks offer a high level of protection against bushfire smoke, grave air pollution and widespread transmission. It got its name from the fact that it filters 95% of fine particulates in the air.
So does it protect you from viral illnesses like the coronavirus? The short answer is yes. Studies say they are highly effective if worn correctly.
When buying one, make sure the packaging specifically indicates “N95” and “NIOSH-approved” to ensure you’re getting the full level of protection. Alternatively, you can check this list of NIOSH-approved N95 masks before you buy.
How to Wear a Respirator Mask
Always follow the manufacturer’s directions for wearing an N95 mask. It should cover both the nose and mouth. Correct fit requires contact with smooth skin. So it will not work well for people with beards or facial hair. Both straps on the mask should be held in place to prevent air leaks around it.
It can be tricky to wear an N95 mask, but you know you’re wearing it right if it gets hot and stuffy. This tutorial video is also helpful.
You can also use these tests to ensure a snug fit:
- Negative pressure check – Place both hands over the filter piece of the mask and inhale sharply. Try not to move the mask from its position. The mask should pull into your face. If there is an air leak, adjust the mask on your face and repeat the test.
- Positive pressure check – Place both hands over the mask and exhale sharply. Cover the exhalation valve if your mask has one. No air should leak out of the mask if it fits correctly.
N95 masks are a single-use PPE. They must be thrown out if they get clogged, deformed, wet, or dirty inside. No, you can’t just wash or disinfect them.
The 4 Fs of mask selection
Here’s what to consider when choosing the right mask:
- Fluid resistance. A fluid-resistant mask is necessary when there’s a chance of blood or bodily fluid splatter.
- Filtration. A surgical mask protects well against pollution and large-particle droplets. But a high-filtration mask (N95 respirator) is suitable when smoke is present or when in close contact with infected patients.
- Features. Extra features like eye shield and anti-fog film are sometimes required depending on the setting.
- Fit. A mask can only protect you as long as its worn properly. Be sure your mouth and nose are covered completely to prevent gaps that increase the risk of inhalation exposure.
Masks are a sensible precaution especially in high-risk countries. But it is not really necessary for healthy people.
More than wearing a protective mask, it is important to do frequent and proper hand washing to avoid infection.
About the author
Hey, it’s Chenzi! A writer made in Cebu. Stringing words is my bread and butter, but baking and mothering my 3-year-old are what feed my soul. I have an insatiable thirst for learning.