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How Do COVID-19 Face Masks Work and Which One is Best?

Now that many community health professionals, such as dentists and physiotherapists, are going back to work, they are scrambling to find masks suitable for situations where they might be in close contact with patients. The shortage of face masks, especially respirators, or N95 masks as they’re commonly known, has made this a difficult task.

The shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) is a real problem in Canada – and it will become a bigger one if there is a large second wave of the virus. It is estimated that demand for face masks will be over 3.3 billion in the next year. Issues with overseas suppliers sending faulty N95 masks will further exacerbate the PPE supply issue. This shortage may leave some wondering what kind of mask they can get away with using.

At first, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) and other health organizations recommended against wearing masks because they could actually do more harm than good and give a false sense of security to the wearer. However, as time passed the CDC and Health Canada have adopted new recommendations to wear non-medical masks where social distancing is difficult.

For some health professionals, non-medical masks may be safe if they operate in lower risk situations. However, others may need access to medical masks or N95s if they are working in close contact with potentially infected individuals or in sensitive roles such as the food chain. The Royal College of Dental Surgeons of Ontario, for instance, has told dentists that if they are doing certain high-infection-risk procedures they must wear fit-tested N95 masks.

Certain industrial businesses also need access to N95 masks or respirators due to dangerous particulates that are generated in workplaces. If these businesses are running out of their supply and are having trouble re-supplying, what should they do? One option is to clean the masks through a disinfection process such as the one employed by SteriRight’s state-of-the-art new technology.

In order to answer the question of what type of COVID-19 mask you should be using, we must understand how the different types of masks work, and how well they protect you.

How Surgical and Cloth Masks Work

surgical mask covid-19

A surgical mask is loose-fitting and made from nonwoven fabric. It is meant to create a simple physical barrier between potential pathogens and the nose and mouth of the wearer. It can provide some protection against COVID-19 because it can block large respiratory droplets from directly entering the nose and mouth. It does not protect against airborne particles that can sneak in the gaps between the edges of the mask and the face.

making cloth mask covid-19

Cloth masks are loose-fitting like surgical masks but are made from household woven fabrics like cotton or textiles. They can be made easily at home – the U.S. Surgeon General made a video of how to make your own. These masks can also protect you from large respiratory droplets but will not protect from small airborne virus particles – the openings between the weaves in the fabric are too large to block the tiny particles.

Cloth masks have been shown in some studies to not be as protective as surgical masks against virus particles. They also should not be worn by anyone who has asthma or any trouble breathing.

How N95 Masks and Respirators Work

N95 masks and other respirators are not simply barriers that block virus particles like surgical or cloth masks. They do not so much “block” particles as “capture” them with fibers as they attempt to pass through the mask. They are very complex devices that require very careful handling if they are to maintain their protective properties.

The “95” in the name means it blocks 95% of very small (0.3 micron) particles. There are also N99 (99% protection) and N100 (99.7% protection) masks. The “N” means that the mask is not resistant to oil particles. There are also R-series respirators that are resistant to oil but only for a certain amount of time. P-series respirators are resistant to oil for much longer.

Other respirators that are considered very similar to N95 masks are KN95 (China standard), KF94 (Korea standard), P2 (Australia/New Zealand standard), DS2 (Japan standard) and FFP2 (EU standard). The only respirators authorized by Health Canada, from approved manufacturers, for uses related to COVID-19 are N95s, KN95s and FFP2s.

N95 masks are made from flat, nonwoven materials and consist of very fine fibres. These fibres create tiny, winding paths that air can move through. They must be fit-tested in order to work at their maximum effectiveness.

There are four ways that n95 masks capture particles:

  1. Inertial impaction
  2. Interception
  3. Diffusion
  4. Electrostatic attraction


Inertial impaction is when larger particles have enough mass that their inertia flings them into the fibres as they attempt to follow the airstream through the filter.

Interception is when particles pass close to a filter fibre in their route through the mask and get caught in the filter.

Diffusion is when small particles with little mass get pushed off their course by air molecules as they follow the airstream. They then deviate from the airstream causing them to get caught in the filter fibres.

The final mechanism, electrostatic attraction is when charged particles are attracted to oppositely charged fibres, pulling them into the filter.

N95 masks are very delicate because if any of the above-mentioned mechanisms are compromised the mask cannot be reused. For this reason, and because there is such a shortage of N95s, when decontaminating the masks for reuse it is very important to obtain the services of qualified professionals.

Which Mask Should You Use?

If you are an individual looking to protect yourself in your day-to-day activities, you should wear a surgical mask or an N95 mask if you want an extra level of protection.

If you are operating or working at a business where there is potential for contact with COVID-19-infected people it is more of a judgment call. If you want to ensure protection for yourself or your employees, especially in a healthcare setting, you should wear an N95 or equivalent respirator.

If you are using an N95 mask, make sure you disinfect it properly after each use so you do not diminish supply. Learn more about how to do that here.

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