With all that is going on in the world now, it can be easy to get overwhelmed at all the different types of face masks and the benefits of each type.
What is the right type of mask and for what purpose? How well does each mask filter? Should I choose a disposable or reusable mask.
There are six main types of face mask:
- N95 Surgical Masks
- Particulate Respirators (N95, P2, FFP2, KN95, P3 etc)
- Surgical Masks
- Cloth Masks with Filter
- Nuisance Dust Mask / Utility Mask
- Cloth Mask
What are the benefits of each type of mask? How can you know that it’s the right type for your job at hand?
We explain in simple terms the benefit of each type of mask the situations that it is designed for use.
Is a dust mask the same as N95?
When you are wearing a nuisance dust mask you are getting a basic face covering with limited filtration ability and no seal. It provides a simple barrier across your face that can provide differing degrees of protection against pollen, dust, dander and germs.
A nuisance dust mask is disposable, and can be used in the same scenarios as a cloth mask. As the Therapeutic Goods of Australia says:
“A simple, flexible barrier that is placed over the nose and mouth during short exams and visitations, or during short procedures that do not produce fluid, spray or aerosols. Utility masks are not regulated as medical devices ” TGA Australia
A nuisance dust mask won’t protect you against hazardous fumes, asbestos, or aerosols. Nuisance dusk masks also can’t be worn to protect those who have asthma from reactions to dust, mold spores, or dyes.
A confusing thing about these masks is that they can look similar to higher grade surgical masks. but they have not been tested against the stringent regulations that are in place for medical masks.
A cloth mask is another simple face covering that can provide limited filtration and no seal. The greatest benefit to a cloth mask is that it is easy to acquire or make, can be reused, and comes in a variety of colours and patterns to suit your style.
But cloth face masks are not intended for use in medical setting and are not subject to the same regulations as surgical masks or some respirators.
The efficiency of cloth masks vary greatly – it all depends on how tightly woven the cloth is, and how many layers.
Most cloth masks are more expensive than disposable styles per mask, so they are made to be re-used. When using a cloth mask, you save money in the long run. It can be unsanitary to re-use masks that you’ve worn before, so you’ll need to wash and dry your masks properly in between uses. A good quality mask can be washed in a warm wash cycle with an enzyme washing powder.
Cloth Masks with Filter
Cloth masks with filters are a solid option and provide that extra degree of protection.
As the cloth material is generally more porous than the melt-blown fabric in disposable options, the filter that you insert into a cloth mask can help catch smaller particles that can not be filtered by cloth alone. And of course, the greatest benefit is that you can wash and reuse the main mask saving money and the environment.
These cloth masks have a pocket sewn into them, which makes it easy to insert a filter.
But what should the filter be made from? You can buy great PM2.5 rated filters that you can insert into your mask. An alternate material, according to Australian scientist Jeremy Howard is paper towel. A cloth mask with a paper towel filter provides more filtration than a cloth mask alone.
Paragon tools has cloth masks for sale that come with disposable PM2.5 filters that provide ≥94% filtration of particles >0.3 micron. These give you the benefit of convenience of a cloth mask, but the added protection should you require it.
While cloth masks don’t provide a secure facial seal l they are a great option for low risk activities like shopping and getting petrol. As mentioned above, a multi-layer cloth mask usually provides adequate protection. Add the filter in there, and you have a pretty good face covering.
Surgical masks have higher grade filters that are designed to provide protection from small particles. They provide a barrier from front on, so provide some protection when people are talking to you. They are what you see mostly in medical settings and may come with earloop straps or tie on straps.
As they are loose fitting, a surgical mask does not provide the airborne transmission protection that particulate respirator does. This is because air will often go the easiest route. When breathing in, air can still come in through the sides around the filter.
Their main benefit is to provide protection against front on sprays from talking or coughing (droplet protection). The other great thing is the stronger filter protect others from your exhaled air that goes through the filter.
The other benefit of a Surgical mask is that it is fluid-resistant. You also can have confidence in what you are wearing as they are tightly regulated into specific grades. They come in level 1, 2 or 3 grades based on the level of protection provided, or fluid resistance.
Level 3: maximum barrier protection: for heavy levels of aerosols, spray and/or fluids.
Level 2: moderate barrier protection: for low to moderate levels of aerosols, spray and/or fluids.
Level 1: low barrier protection: general use for short procedures and exams that don’t involve aerosols, spray or fluids (also known as examination masks).
The main difference between most face masks and particulate respirators, is the secure seal that they provide on your face. Due to this seal, any air you breath in or out, can not bypass the mask filter. That means that all air going in and out is designed to be filtered.
They are designed to protect against mechanically generated particles such as dust, silica, asbestos and are also used in medical settings.
When looking a particulate respirators, there are three levels which these face masks fall into; P1, P2 and P3. They are tightly regulated and tested for their ability to filter out non-oil based particles.
- P3 offers ≥99.95% filtration of particles >0.3 micron.
- P2 offers ≥94% filtration of particles >0.3 micron, and
- P1 offers≥80% filtration of particles >1 micron
The most common respirator is the N95 respirator which provides ≥95 % filtration of non-oil based particles greater than .3 microns. Around the globe the equivalent to N95 Masks are:
- FFP2 in Europe
- P2 in Australia
- KN95 in China
Some N95 masks come with a one way exhalation valve. A P2 mask with an exhalation valve is not generally suitable for medical scenarios, as the air being breathed out is not filtered.
N95 Surgical Masks
A N95 Surgical mask really packs a punch! When you are wearing one of these you are getting the benefit of both a surgical mask and a N95 respirator . They provide both:
- the splash resistance of a surgical mask >99% BFE (Bacterial Filtration Efficiency), as well as
- the secure facial seal of a particulate respirator with ≥95 % filtration of particles greater than 0.3 microns.
Surgical N95 masks like the 3M 1860 mask are recommended for healthcare workers who need protection from airborne hazards as well as high velocity splashes and sprays.
Please note: These are extremely difficult to come by and should not be purchased by anyone outside health care settings.