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The Differences Between N95, KN95, Surgical, and Cloth Masks, Explained

During the coronavirus crisis, mask-wearing and the nation-wide shortage of masks have become hotly discussed topics. You might have already heard the names of many different types of masks: N95 respirator, KN95 respirator, surgical mask, and cloth mask, but are you confused about what each of them means and how they are different?  

Read on for a thorough explanation of how each mask works, and what type of mask you should use.  

N95 respirator

According to the CDC, the N95s intended use and purpose are to reduce the wearer’s exposure to particles from small particle aerosols (that are non-oil) to large droplets. The FDA states that “an N95 respirator is a respiratory protective device designed to achieve a very close facial fit,” and when it is properly fitted, it filters out 95% of very small (.3 micron) airborne particles.

N95 respirators filter more effectively than surgical or cloth masks,  or cloth masks, but despite their effectiveness, they do not completely eliminate the possibility of getting an illness. N95 respirators are reusable but should be discarded when they are damaged, deformed, dirtied, contaminated with bodily fluids, or become hard to breathe in.

The N95 gets evaluated, tested, and approved by NIOSH according to the US’s mask standards. 

Important points reviewed: 

  • The N95 is designed to be properly fitted around the face to form a tight seal.  
  • The N95 blocks 95% of both large droplets and non-oil small-particle aerosols. 
  • It does not completely eliminate the possibility of getting an illness
  • More effective at filtering than a surgical or cloth masks

KN95 Respirator

The KN95 blocks 95% of very small particles, in this respect, it is the same as N95. The key difference between KN95 AND N95 is that the N95 is approved by NIOSH according to US’s mask standards and the KN95 is approved according to China’s mask standards. 

Does this mean KN95’s quality is worse? The answer is no. 

KN95 and N95 are functionally similar in the most important aspects, such as filtration level, but differ in other, more minor respects

KN95’s mask fit needs to be tested on human subjects (≤ 8% leakage required), whereas N95 required no mask fit test (though hospitals often do their own mask fit tests). N95 masks have tests that ensure they are slightly more breathable compared to KN95. 

Important points reviewed: 

  • KN95 is approved by Chinese standards and N95 by US standards
  • They both block 95% of very small (0.3 micron) particles

Surgical mask

Surgical masks are certified by the FDA, not NIOSH like N95. According to the FDA, surgical masks are loose-fitting disposable devices that should be discarded after one use. Surgical masks are meant to block large-particle droplets, splashes, sprays or splatters that contained viruses or bacteria. 

When a person talks, breathes, coughs, and sneezes, not only do large-particle droplets escape their bodies, but small particles aerosols do too. Because the fit is loose, small aerosols can get into and out of the mask around the edges. The fabric of the surgical mask also does not block small particle aerosols. All of this means that surgical masks do not protect one against airborne particles. 

The surgical mask does not provide complete protection against disease transmissions and is less effective than N95/KN95 at filtering. It is also not considered respiratory protection.

Important points reviewed: 

  • Surgical masks prevent the wearer from potentially spreading diseases. 
  • The surgical mask only blocks large droplets and not air-born small particle aerosols.
  • The CDC states that the coronavirus mainly spreads from person to person via droplets from coughs and sneezes, which the surgical mask blocks. 

Cloth Mask

Cloth masks are made out of non-medical grade fabric and are not certified by any federal agencies. Anyone can make them with fabrics readily available in stores or at homes. These everyday fabrics are designed for other purposes, not for the prevention of disease transmission. A study has shown that cloth masks are less effective at preventing respiratory infections compared to medical masks.

Despite this, wearing a cloth mask is still better than wearing no mask at all. Since new data came out that there are a lot more coronavirus carriers with no symptoms than previously thought, the CDC has recommended all Americans to don cloth masks. 

If you are infected but show no symptoms, by wearing a cloth mask you can decrease the amount of virus-carrying respiratory particles you emit into the air, and you can decrease the distance they travel as well. If everyone wears a mask, the rate of asymptomatic transmission may decrease, which slows the spread of the coronavirus. 

To increase the effectiveness of your homemade cloth mask, you can make sure that the mask forms a snug seal around your face. Laying up multiple pieces of fabric also provides more filtration than having only one layer. 

Important points reviewed:

  • Anyone can make a cloth mask, they are not certified by federal agencies.
  • Wearing a cloth mask protects others from the wearer and can slow community spread. 

Now that you have a clearer idea of the differences between each kind of mask, you may be wondering, which kind of masks is right for me? 

Mocacare 3-ply medical masks

What kind of mask should you wear?

Respirators offer the most protection, but because they are in short supply worldwide, they are most needed by medical professionals who work for long hours in close proximity with lots of sick people. 

Surgical masks are also needed by healthcare workers, and the CDC has recommended all other Americans to wear cloth masks. 

However, not all Americans are at equal risk of getting or dying from COVID-19. People with pre-existing conditions have much higher fatality rates after contracting COVID-19, and people with heart disease, in particular, are reported to have the highest fatality rate at 10%. 

Other pre-existing conditions include obesity, diabetes, stroke, chronic diseases of the lungs, liver, or kidneys, cancer, old age (65+), and a compromised immune system. High blood pressure also poses a problem if it has damaged one’s arteries and heart. 

Essential workers have a higher risk of being exposed to the coronavirus since they’re not working from home, and often have to work with other people in enclosed environments. 

For people whose loved ones or themselves are at high-risk, they might want to protect against the coronavirus to the fullest extent. 

MOCACARE has in stock 3-ply, fluid-resistant masks that block large-particle respiratory droplets. MOCACARE’s masks have the CE marking which shows that they comply with the European Union’s standard of health and safety, and the masks received certification from ECM (Italy).

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