Whether we're facing a global pandemic or catastrophic wildfires causing record-setting smoke & air pollution, the differences between surgical masks, medical respirators and particulate-filtering pm2.5 masks are little-understood. N95 respirators and particulate masks with pm2.5 filters both provide excellent protection against small airborne particulates. Surgical masks and PM2.5 masks both worth well against larger particulates, with less discomfort compared to the N95. When should you use one versus the others, especially when medical respirators are needed by health care providers?
Surgical Face Masks
Surgical masks are helpful in hospitals, doctor's offices, and other settings where airborne pathogens are prevalent. Surgical masks are perfect at preventing bodily fluids containing bacteria and viruses from leaving your body, but not necessarily from entering it. In general, medical masks are made to protect the people around you by minimizing the airborne particulates expelled from you mouth and nose from airborne particulates, including virions hitching a ride on your bodily fluid.
Because the design of medical face masks is to stop water droplets, they are generally more likely to be looser fitting, and may leave a gap between the edge of the cover andyour skin. Whereas heavier drops of water are less likely to be diverted around the edges of the masks, the gaps do make face masks less effective at protecting against smaller, more lightweight particulates that can sneak through one of many gaps between the surgical mask and your face.
So what's the difference between masks with and without a filter?
Particulate masks, also known as PM2.5 Masks, are more form-fitting than surgical masks, and typically are meant to be reused. However, unlike a surgical mask, a "PM 2.5" Mask is designed to protect you as well as others, so they tend to be closer fitting, with less pleats, and may contain a (filtered) exhalation valve. These masks have been used for decades in Asia, where they are referred to as "Pollution Masks". These masks are often packaged with disposable 2.5 filters. Depending on the "Grade" of these masks, they can be designed to filter from between 65% to 90% fine aerosol particles, just slightly less than an N95 mask, but with less inhalation strain.
The structure of a particulate mask is engineered so the mask fits tightly against the face, reducing the gap which standard face masks have. Industrial-grade respirators leave practically no gap at all, whereas non-medical particulate mask - designed to reduce pollution and bring airborne particulates down to minimal levels instead of eliminating them entirely - trade a few percentage points of efficiency in order to save your lungs from the strain of a sealed respirator.
The filtering material in particulate masks is much more dense than surgical masks, because they are designed to safeguard against germs as well as pm2.5 particulate pollution, which includes vehicle exhaust, wildfire smoke, and industrial & agricultural emissions. More importantly, a particulate mask fits better than a surgical mask. Of course, a respirator will also filter larger particulates like germ-carrying water droplets and aerosols.
If you're using a respirator to protect against germs and viruses, remember the tradeoff with a surgical mask can be slightly more inhalation resistance, which means pm2.5 masks should be used be by members of sensitive groups only after consulting a medical professional. Industrial respirators like the N95 are designed for use by healthcare professionals in industrial or medical settings. Non-medical particulate masks are more suited to protect against short-term exposure, as well as keeping other people safe from your own sneezes and coughs.
Side Effects of Respirator Masks
Wearing a respirator mask for a long period of time can have a physiological impact on your your heart and lungs, when walking, exercising, or even when resting. While an N95 mask can be effective at filtering out particulates , there is some disagreement about whether a certified respirator is appropriate for extended periods of time in a non-industrial setting, for example, during periods of wildfire smoke or even for everyday use these days.
One option to avoid the strain of a medical respirator while still retaining a significant degree of protection is to use a fitted particulate mask with a pm2.5 insert. These type of masks can help you avoid the increased exertion associated with a complete seal, but are still capable of removing a substantial amount of particulates from the air, even the very smallest. Disposable filters can't be formally certified as N95 compliant since they won't form a 100% seal, but they can still be capable of reducing a meaningful amount of airborne viruses and particles, especially carbon pm2.5 filters with electrostatic non-woven barriers .
Remember, industrial respirators like the N95, KF94 or KN95 typically are labelled as such, and should indicate on the mask or the packaging that they are approved by the relevant authorities (US respirators are also searchable in an online database).
We hope we explained how masks and respirators differ from one another. No matter what kind of mask or face-covering you use, they all do an excellent job protecting us from accidentally touching our mouth or nose. Just be sure to remove your mask from the straps if you're using it to prevent disease, and wash your hands before and after touching your mask.
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