Since the spread of COVID-19, wearing a protective facial covering has become all but mandatory for Americans. For medical professionals who are on the front lines, PPE is even more important. Not just any PPE will do, either. While the mask shortage has led many Americans to make their own masks out of old cloth, there’s a distinct difference between medically-approved facial coverings for hospital staff and the homemade PPE we see people wearing on the street. Here are a few key differences to be aware of when choosing the right PPE, whether you’re just running errands or heading off to save lives.
N95s are for people in close, daily contact with COVID-19
Because of the recent mask shortage, it’s common to see people walking around wearing homemade face coverings. While these do a good enough job of keeping people from spreading the virus, the main difference between these marks and N95s is that, being made for the medical establishment, N95s are breathable masks with air filtration systems that help to keep wearers safe even in close contact with airborne disease. N95 masks are the gold standard, but they are not comparable to a surgical mask and are most commonly used in high-risk areas like hospitals and emergency care centers.
N95s use air filtration for easier breathing
Because N95s are made for medical staff, they’re a bit more advanced than the regular homemade masks and bandanas many civilians wear. That said, not all N95 masks are National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) approved. You can find a list of approved mask types on their website. N95s are able to filter out 95% of contaminants and create a seal that keeps germs out while facilitating breathing.
N95s are not surgical masks
While N95s work to seal the wearer’s mouth and nose from germ spread and contamination, they are not the same as surgical masks, which are water-resistant. Because the spread of COVID-19 germs relies on aerosols rather than droplets (think about sneezing versus spitting to understand the difference,) an N95’s filtration system helps prevent infection from spreading by sealing off and containing the mouth and nose area. While wearing a paper mask might not seem like the most comfortable option, the filtration system used for N95s allows for long wear times and a safer workplace environment.
Cloth masks are reusable, N95s are not
While disposable masks are the gold standard for the medical industry, the FDA recommends limited, if any, reuse of these masks. Since N95s are meant to be disposable, it might make more sense to use a reusable homemade mask for short errands rather than opting for a box of N95s. However, if you work in the medical industry or are considered an essential worker of any kind, wearing a cloth mask for long hours is not ideal. If you have long shifts to get through in an exposed, public place such as the supermarket or an office building, investing in N95s could make for a much more breathable, comfortable experience.