An N95 3M 8210 Disposable Respirator
An N95 3M 8210 Disposable Respirator | Image Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:3M_N95_Particulate_Respirator.JPG

With the increasing spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, masks are more necessary than ever. I have family, friends, and acquaintances who share different beliefs on the pandemic. That said whether you trust medical professionals, believe that COVID-19 is just a new name for this year’s flu strain, or a government hoax there is no denying that there is a virus filling our hospital ICUs with sick people and that masks protect you from the illness. To those reading my post, I hope that it convinces you to wear a mask.

This post should not be considered medical advice, I am not a doctor and this post consists of my personal opinions. I believe I’ve done my research well and cited sources where possible, you should consult a doctor before making medical decisions.

How does a mask protect you and others from COVID-19?

As COVID-19 is primarily spread through respiratory droplets, a mask catches the droplets and prevents them from spreading to and from you. An N95 or KN95 mask will filter 95% of particles greater than 0.3 microns in size. According to the National Library of Medicine, the COVID-19 virus is approximately 0.125 Micron or 125 nanometers in diameter, however, it’s generally spread through respiratory droplets (for example, when you cough or sneeze) which range in size from 0.5-3 Micron, as a result, an N95 or KN95 mask will not filter the virus itself, however, it will filter the particles carrying it thus achieving the desired effect. The CDC wrote a fact-sheet about respirator's ability to protect you from COVID-19. By wearing a mask that blocks the droplets you stay safe, healthy, and COVID-19 free.

Is there a mask that filters the virus itself? I can’t take any chances!

Aside from a gas mask with its own oxygen supply, no mask filters 100% of outside particles. Oxygen itself is a particle, a single oxygen molecule is 0.0005 microns, and you need to be able to breathe it while wearing a mask. As a result, unless you wear a gas mask with its own oxygen supply, there’s always a chance that the COVID-19 virus will slip through your mask. This goes for cloth masks, N95 masks, and even P100 Respirators which filter 99.97% of particles above 0.3 microns in size. When choosing a mask you will need to find one with filtering adequate to your risk level. Questions might include your health risk and the locations you travel to daily. For an immunocompromised individual, it’d be better to use a P100 Respirator whereas a healthy adult might use a simple cloth mask instead. That said the factories are focused on mass-producing KN95 and N95 masks and don’t have as much additional capacity for the more specialized masks with stronger filters. It’s difficult to procure the more specialized ones and the KN95 masks are a cost-effective alternative.

Is COVID-19 airborne? If so does that defeat the purpose of masks?

There has been some research indicating that COVID-19 may be airborne, if this is true it would explain why some people who wear masks still get sick, it would not mean there are no benefits to wearing a mask, even if COVID-19 is airborne many cases are still spread through respiratory droplets and wearing a mask slows down that part of the spread.

Should you wear a valved mask?

Unless there is not a valveless alternative available you should avoid valved masks. The valved masks usually do not filter outgoing particles (such as the droplets which spread COVID-19) or do not filter them as aggressively. Valved-masks are designed to protect the wearer, not the other way around.

One suggestion I’ve seen online is to cover the valve although it may be a bit more difficult to breathe if you do that. I am not an expert on mask safety but for many industrial respirators (for example N99, N100, P99, P100, etc) it may be dangerous to cover the valve and put your oxygen supply below safe levels.

If you’re an individual buying these industrial respirators you probably procured them from grey market websites and it’s unlikely you received the box and instructions to go with the mask. 3M and other mask makers usually require you to submit information about your industry before placing an order for their specialized products and to affirm that you’ve read the safety guidelines and agree to follow them. When you buy from grey market websites, you don’t always get the safety information as you aren’t supposed to have those masks in the first place. If you have those masks it’s probably a good idea to find and read the safety information. Google is your friend here and can pull up the guidelines for your specific model number.

Industrial respirators have specific wearing guidelines you need to follow to be safe while wearing them. Incorrect use can cause injury or death as indicated on the box that your mask (should have) came in. Some masks are designed to only allow air to flow through a very specific part of the mask. Blocking the filter area may limit your access to oxygen and harm you.

3M wrote a short book on how to choose a respirator and the guidelines for their use.

I personally do not have an issue with people choosing to wear the valved masks instead of non-valved ones. For example, the P100 respirators are valved and offer a great deal of additional protection to the wearer. A valved P100 respirator filters 99.97% vs a non-valved N95 mask only filters 95% of particles greater than 0.3 microns in size. The extra filtration ability is a matter of life or death for many people. A valved-mask still directly stops the spread of COVID-19 in one direction and it still indirectly stops the spread in the other direction by keeping the wearer safer. Do you believe that a valved-mask defeats the purpose of wearing a mask just because it doesn’t directly protect others? If anything these masks do more to stop the spread as the wearer is less likely to come in contact with the COVID-19 virus in the first place and thus is less likely to spread it to others. Additionally, many people refuse to wear a mask at all: Despite government orders, fines, and even arrests won’t change their mind and make them wear a mask. If those people won’t do their part to protect you, why should you accept a reduced amount of protection from the virus to protect them instead? If they want to be safe from COVID-19 then they can wear a mask too. I perceive the message against valved masks as our doctors and governments want you to wear a mask that protects others but not yourself. As altruistic as it may be to selflessly protect others, the reality of our situation is people will not do the same for you, you have to protect yourself before you can protect others.

Despite this however, some cities have chosen to ban masks with valves, so you’ll need to check your local laws before deciding whether to wear a mask with a valve or not. To fulfill needs such as grocery shopping you have to follow any local laws in place and may have a more difficult experience traveling while wearing a valved mask. As a result, it’s best to avoid them and buy the versions which do not have a valve whenever possible. Many N95 and KN95 masks are readily available on the market which does not have a valve and still provides the desired filtration capacity for most individuals.

Should I wear a Fitted or Unfitted Mask?

In general, because of the tighter fit, fewer particles will slip through when worn properly. There are straps you can buy to make cloth or 3-ply masks have a tighter fit as well. The tighter the fit the fewer particles that slip through the mask. Although some people dislike the fitted masks and will choose to wear an unfitted one instead. As long as you wear a mask you’re reducing the spread of the COVID-19 virus, and the type is a matter of personal preference.

Is a cloth mask enough for me?

A cloth mask will not filter as many particles but when worn correctly to cover your mouth and nose, it will still reduce the spread. Many stores are selling reusable ones with an anti-bacterial coating that’ll survive several washes for under $10. Additionally, local governments and other volunteer organizations are giving them away for free. If you do not want to or cannot invest in the more expensive masks then a cloth mask is both accessible and beneficial to you and those around you.

What’s the difference between KN95, N95, N99, N100, P95, P99, and P100 masks?

Each of these codes corresponds with the design of and filtration levels of a mask. A KN95 mask is China’s version of the N95 mask. For KN95s fit testing is a requirement. An N95 mask is designed to have a pressure drop when breathing outwards to increase the wearer’s comfort, a KN95 mask does not offer this. There is some debate on whether the pressure drop decreases the level of protection to the wearer. Additionally, a KN95 mask has straps on the left and right sides, whereas an N95 mask has straps on the top and bottom (this results in a tighter fit).

It should be noted that a KN95 and N95 mask are equivalent in the number of particles they filter. When worn correctly a KN95 and N95 mask offers an equal amount of protection. KN95s are in greater supply than N95 masks and as a result, cost less.

As for the amount of filtration provided: An N95 mask filters 95% of particles above 0.3 microns. An N99 and N100 filter 99% and 99.97% of particles above 0.3 microns respectively. The same numbers apply to P95, P99, and P100 masks however they are also designed to filter out oil particles, there is some debate as to whether they are better at filtering the COVID-19 virus as it’s spread through respiratory droplets which can be considered an oily particle.

3M created a chart comparing the different types of filters.

Where should I buy a mask from?

When buying a mask you should vet your sellers carefully. There are lots of scammers raising the price or selling fake products to make a quick profit. I would avoid purchasing masks from eBay and Amazon, you will end up paying more than you need to. For example, a P100 Disposable Respirator costs about $11 a mask, however since there is a shortage of them, people on eBay and similar websites are selling them for around $40 a mask. I would recommend checking local stores to see if they have masks in stock at a reasonable price as you can get them immediately and won’t have to pay for shipping. I purchase most of my masks from the Texas company HonestPPESupply, the masks are of decent quality and at a low price, additionally, they’re shipped from within the United States so they only take a few days to arrive. When ordering online, check the reviews, and do your research to avoid purchasing low-quality products that do not provide adequate protection.

Conclusion

I hope you found this article on mask-wearing and COVID-19 informative. Remember to wear a mask and save a life going forward.