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Answering Your Questions About Respirator Masks

Emily Black | JAN 31, 2020

With the confirmed cases of the latest strain of Coronavirus nearly doubling in the past two days, the WHO declared today that 2019-nCOV is now a public health emergency of international concern.  This has sent many people scrambling to buy "germ masks" of any kind.  But what masks work for which situations, and what is the best kind of mask to get your family?  What do those ratings really mean anyhow?  Should you buy all the masks you can get your hands on?

We'll answer all those questions - but to address the last question first - no.  Having a few masks for yourself and your family is a great idea.  However, don't buy up all the masks from your local stores and hoard them.  As of today, there are still only 6 confirmed cases of 2019-nCOV in the United States - the spread seems to have been successfully contained.  Hoarding masks only harms those treating the sick - as their masks must be changed often to reduce exposure - and the average American has a far lower risk of being exposed outside of places like hospitals and walk in clinics.  

Now that that's out of the way - let's get to why masks CAN help and ARE an important addition to any emergency bag.  

1)  Masks of any kind  reduce lots of different risks.  

At the most basic level, a mask is a physical barrier between your nose and mouth and the rest of the world.  This means particulate or spray (sneezing/coughing) matter doesn't enter, or leave.  They protect you, and alternatively, if you're ill yourself, they protect others from you.  They also act as a reminder to the young to keep their fingers out of noses, and to chronic nail biters like me, to keep them out of mouths as well.  This goes for all masks, from simple disposable paper masks to heavier duty reusable respirators.  All mask effectiveness improves when paired with with proper hand washing and other contamination avoidance habits (like coughing into the inside of one's elbow, or using a foot to open a push-able door).  However, the types masks and their ratings matter, and no mask will make you bulletproof.  So, let's move on to...

2)  How masks fit matters.  

A surgical mask - the papery disposable kind you've likely seen people wearing in hospitals, on public transit, or in airports - fit loosely.  They block the wearer's face from physical germ transfer (like someone coughing near you on a plane), and protect others from your fluids as well.  But they do not block out airborne germs or particulates such as smoke or dust, because they fit loosely on the wearer's face.

Then there are respirator masks.  These masks, instead of being flat, or pleated like surgical masks, are formed in the shape of a face.  A respirator can only effectively protect if it is actually worn regularly - and outside of the medical field, and some construction jobs - most people are not used to the feeling of breathing through a respirator.  When fitted properly, they get hot, stuffy, and breathing takes a bit more effort which can feel claustrophobic to some, and can cause glasses to fog up. 

If your respirator has gaps, it is either not fitted correctly (the mask itself is too large or too small for the wearer), or it not seated correctly (the wearer has it on slightly askew, or without the nose-bridge wire pinched to fit).  Bearded people will find that typical disposable molded respirators will most likely not seal around the lower portion of their face, so another solution might prove more effective.

3)  A masks rating matters.

An N95 mask gets it's name from the fact that it blocks out 95% of airborne particles, down to 0.3 microns, which includes viruses.  They are highly effective in protecting against viruses, mold spoors, air pollution, and smoke - but their effectiveness lessens most often due to improper fit, incorrect application (actually putting it on correctly), or inconsistent wearing habits.   All of the masks carried by Redfora are rated N95 and  NIOSH approved.

There ARE other ratings, such as P95 (like an N95 but also resists oil-based particles), and for the typical user trying to block out germs or smog, are not only more difficult to breathe in, but are unnecessary.  Truly, outside the industrial or laboratory setting, the P rated masks offer no increased protection.  

There are also masks rated either HEPA or 100, which filter, you guessed it, 100% of particles 0.3 microns or larger.  However, these masks are also more difficult to breathe in, typically the larger the number, the faster breathing fatigue sets in, which leads to many wearers who are not used to breathing with a respirator to remove the mask, completely negating it's effectiveness.  

4)  Disposable vs Reusable Masks...which is better?

There are pros and cons to both disposable and reusable respirators.

Disposable: 

  • No maintenance.  Can be disposed of if it becomes damaged or soiled.
  • Less chance of exposing oneself if a mask has been in a high risk environment like in a daycare, a medical office, a moldy building, or if everyone at work is coming down with the flu.  Just toss the contaminated mask and replace with a fresh one.
  • Can be replaced on the fly when out in public.
  • Less costly per mask.
  • Come in multipacks so you can share with family or friends.

Reusable:

  • More environmentally friendly.
  • Soft materials may feel more comfortable on the face vs. stiff molded disposables.
  • Less likely to get mixed up with other people's masks.  Since reusable masks like those from Vogmask come in several patterns and colors, keeping your mask from being accidentally worn by someone else is easier.
  • Softer materials in reusable masks may seal around the face more effectively than less flexible molded disposables, especially during movement.
  • May be less financial investment overall than tossing and replacing disposable masks after each use. 

In wildfire country, or during flu season, I actually suggest that having both is the best way to prepare for an emergency.  Disposable masks are a great addition to your emergency kit (if you have an Earthquake Bag from Redfora, we include them) especially if you plan to go to a place you know will likely have mold (cleaning the basement for instance), or germs (like the ER).  Reusable masks are excellent if you plan on wearing your mask long term, perhaps your area has a lot of air pollution or smoke during fire season and you want a mask to wear on your commute.  Carrying an extra disposable mask with you also means that if your reusable one becomes soiled or contaminated while you're out, you can replace it with a disposable one until you're able to sanitize your reusable mask.  

Whatever type of mask(s) you decide are right for you, they are a smart, cost effective way to mitigate risk and keep your lungs and body healthier when breathing in any kind of environment.