Face Masks: Why You Need Them & What to Avoid

There are a lot of varieties of face masks to choose from according to the level of protection needed and how long protection is required. Some face masks are only intended to catch bacteria that could be shed in liquid droplets and aerosols from the wearer's mouth and nose and must be changed or disposed of within a very short period of time. Other masks are specifically designed to protect the wearer from inhaling tiny, dangerous airborne pollutants and toxic gases and can be used for weeks or even months without requiring any replacement filters.

In any event where one finds themselves exposed to a high risk of getting sick due to airborne contaminants a face mask should be used to protect the respiratory system. This is when it would be helpful to understand which types of face masks are meant for which threats. The biggest reason one would need to wear a mask today is to have protection against the H1N1 (Swine Flu) pandemic that is reaching all over the world.

You might have heard about many different masks intended to protect you from the Swine Flu, including the N95 and N100 masks (recommended by NIOSH), gas masks, or even surgery masks. Each mask is different and not all of them can protect you from viruses like the Swine Flu.

Surgical Masks: These masks are not an appropriate method of protection as they are only intended to reduce the spread of bacteria or viruses if the wearer sneezes or coughs. They are not actually designed to protect the wearer from inhaling the infected particles. It’s possible for surgical masks to block some particles but they are much less effective than respirators, which are designed to block such particles.

Half-Face Cartridge Respirators (Gas Masks): When you are specifically targeting an airborne biological contaminant such as a virus or bacteria that causes flu, you only need to be worried about your nose and mouth. These masks cover a much larger area than your standard half-face respirators, and are usually for chemical warfare or military use where biological weapons are a major threat. These masks are generally much more expensive than any temporary particle mask, and since the areas they’re designed to cover are much more advanced than protection from the swine flu requires, they are not a recommended source of protection to pursue.

N95 and N100 Respirator Masks: The ‘N’ in the name of these masks stands for ‘Not Oil Resistant’, which allows one to be more specific with their needs so they’re not paying for things they don’t need. The number in the name indicates the percentage of airborne particles that particular mask will protect you from. (N95 filters at least 95%, N100 filters at least 99.97%) This type of mask is called an Air-Purifying Escape Respirator (APER) and is intended to be used by the general public for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear incidents. APERs are specifically designed to guard the wearer from inhaling viruses and bacteria that can be spread as tiny particles through the air. They are inexpensive and temporary; most are to be disposed of after one-time use. These masks are also NIOSH certified specifically for use during the Swine Flu pandemic.

Referring to all face masks, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said, “If used correctly, face masks and respirators may help reduce the risk of getting influenza, but they should be used along with other preventive measures, such as avoiding close contact and maintaining good hand hygiene.”

5 thoughts on “Face Masks: Why You Need Them & What to Avoid”

  • John

    To be specific, N-95 respirators block 95% of particles 0.3 microns or larger. The size of the H5N1 virus (bird flu) is 0.1 micron, and the corona virus particles (the ones that cause SARS) are about 0.080 to 0.160 micron. So these respirators won't block individual virus particles. The good news, however, is that you almost never encounter individual airborne virus particles -- what you do encounter is "blobs" of liquid ejected when an infected person sneezes or coughs, and these "blobs" are much larger than 0.3 microns.

    The one-time use limitation is significant -- as the respirator does its job, the outside surface becomes covered with particulate matter that may contain untold millions of virus particles. So it is important to handle a used respirator very carefully, and to wash and/or disinfect your hands after removing one.

    The fit of the respirator is critical to its ability to protect you. As soon as you obtain one, read the instructions carefully, and practice putting it on and adjusting it so it seals to your face. This is where the more expensive respirators with "comfort seals" and "exhalation valves" earn their extra price. Also note that most of the commercially-available respirators are sized for adult faces -- you'll have to do a lot of searching to find ones that achieve a good seal on a child's face.

    • TheReadyExpert

      Very good info. It is very important to remember that while a virus particulate is about .1-.2 microns in size, they will almost always be transmitted in some sort of liquid molecule that will be larger. That is why N95 masks will go a long way towards reducing your exposure to any virus, but a less expensive dust mask virtually offers no protection because the moisture can pass through. Also, remember that a respirator is only as good as the seal around the nose and mouth. The masks we sell are for adults, it is very difficult to find NIOSH rated masks for children. Thanks again for your input.

  • Ben Tanner

    I really liked your blog!

  • Noel Napolitan

    Ahhhh, teamwork! Good info, this is one of those areas where most people don't know much. I'm glad you put this up.

  • Laurie Galloway

    Why don't you carry any P100 face masks? They are supposed to be better, at least from what I've read.

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