Understanding Mask Terminology, N95/KN95/N99, and What to Buy

It's not that complicated but beware of scammers and substandard products

So we’re all resigned to a world that involves us wearing a mask for the foreseeable future. The question many are now asking, especially with more infectious strains doing the rounds, is which masks to buy? The terminology is familiar, but most of us don’t really understand what it all means. This article will try and explain the differences in plain English.

It will also address a few other issues you should consider when choosing a mask. Many are single-use only and if you need one every day, the bill can rapidly mount up. Duration is another thing. Stuck in it all day is not the same as donning one for a run to the shops. If you are in your mask all day, comfort is a major consideration.

Lastly, Medika Life does not endorse any of the products we mention below. These products are, for the most part, freely available online and we do not use affiliate links. You cannot offer advice on products while making money from their sales and expect to retain any credibility. Any links are therefore provided freely.

A few mask basics

We’ll start with a really useful graphic from the CDC on mask comparisons and then dive right into the KN95/N95 debate, explaining the differences and why they matter.

Image courtesy of CDC

We’re going to ignore the surgical masks. They are better than no protection but in our opinion do not offer the same level of protection as the snug-fitting N95 masks (often referred to as N95 Respirators). If you have issues with your breathing however then the loose-fitting surgical mask is a great option. You won’t suffer the same claustrophobic confines experienced with an N95.

KN95 / N95: What’s the deal?

Not much, it turns out. N95 is the U.S. standard, and the KN95 is the Chinese standard. Because of this, only N95 masks are approved for health-care use in the United States, even though KN95 masks have many of the same protective properties.

Both N95 masks and KN95 masks are made from multiple layers of synthetic material (typically a polypropylene plastic polymer) and are designed to be worn over the mouth and nose. Both masks must filter out and capture 95 percent of tiny 0.3-micron particles in the air (hence the “95” in the names).

Now, in case, you’re wondering how this offers protection against the virus, —  the SARS-CoV-2 virus measures 0.1 micron in diameter — and it seems a little like trying to stop a tennis ball with a football net, these masks don’t rely on stopping the virus itself. They catch the larger water particles the virus hitches a ride on. The unpleasant wet bits you cough, sneeze or breathe out get caught, 95% of the time, by these masks.

N95 masks must pass a rigorous inspection and certification process from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which is part of the CDC. Companies making KN95 masks, meanwhile, can seek approval from the FDA, through an emergency authorization for a foreign certification that meets the 95 percent filtration requirement. 

The FDA says the manufacturer of KN95 masks must also provide documentation that the masks and materials used are authentic. The CDC has authorized the use of KN95 masks as a suitable alternative to N95 masks for its response to Covid-19, so both, essentially made in the same way, are equally suited. 

Here are some very important things to remember about these masks. 

  • N95 and KN95 masks are NOT designed to be reused. 
  • Do not wash and re-use these masks or attempt to sterilize them. Doing so simply reduces their efficacy and exposes you to infection.
  • They are designed for single-use and disposal and as we discussed above, may very well have trapped the SARS-CoV-2 virus between the layers of material. 
  • Never share a mask with a family member or friend.
  • Most N95 (US Standard) masks are also manufactured in China. Some KN95 masks are made in the US. The names indicate the country of certification, not manufacture.
  • In terms of breathability, the N95 is possibly slightly less restrictive than a KN95 mask, a factor worth considering if you wear the mask for an extended period.

Here is an expanded explanation of the risks posed by a used mask. Once the virus carrier (water, liquid, etc) dries there is nothing to prevent you from inhaling the virus if it is attached to the front of your mask from the previous day’s use. The SARS-CoV-2 virus can survive for up to 4 days outside of a host, so this is why you must dispose of a used mask. 

Ensure you dispose of the mask hygienically, avoiding touching the front or outside, by using the straps or elastic. and ensure you wash your hands thoroughly. In this way, you can avoid transferring any virus from the outside of your mask to your mouth.

Comparative Costs

3M sells an N95 Face Mask which retails at around $159.95 for 20, which works out at around $8 dollars a mask. If you’re going through these at a rate of 1 a day or you need to mask-up your entire family each day, the cost is prohibitive for most.

The KN95 is cheaper, way more. A single K95 will set you back around $3, so for the equivalent 20 N95 masks shown above, you can walk away with 53 KN95 masks. 

In terms of which masks are FDA and CDC-approved, look to these links to ensure you aren’t buying something manufactured in someone’s basement and only use reputable retailers and in-store to purchase from, avoiding sites like Craigslist, eBay, and Amazon. A list of FDA approved KN95 masks lives here and you can view the CDC list of approved N95 masks here

So is that it, in terms of choice?

Absolutely not, we’re just getting warmed up. I’m sure you noticed the Elastomeric Half Facepiece Respirator (catchy, no?) mentioned by the CDC in their graphic above. 

 Every emergency or pandemic enjoys its fair share of innovation and entrepreneurs who see a gap in the market. The Covid-19 pandemic has been no different and a number of companies have been quick to bring a new breed of mask to market. We refer to them as fashionable gas masks, rebooted versions of the now all too familiar masks worn in laboratories where dangerous pathogens are handled.

These scaled-down and refined mask designs are now available from a number of US-based resellers and you can even express your fashion sense by selecting from transparent models and a range of colors to go with your handbag and shoes. For some people, these masks offer a far more practical solution for day to day living in a covid environment. Here are a few of the practical advantages;

  • These masks are designed to be reused, over and over again.
  • Replace their varying filter or cartridge systems and you’re good to go. 
  • The main mask unit can be sterilized with a variety of systems, often sold by the manufacturer.
  • Although more expensive upfront, the long term saving can be considerable. Odds are you’re going to be needing a mask for a while still,
  • Comfort. Their softer latex-like structure offers far high levels of comfort and reduces the misting of glass in spectacles or face shields.
  • These are designed not to mute your normal voice, so you no longer sound like a muffled version of Tweety with Sylvester sitting on him. 
  • Varying sizes mean you can choose the right size for your face, ensuring a proper fit.
  • Lastly, these just look cool. You’re far more likely to get your family to adopt these as a way of life, than sporting a decidedly unsexy N95.

The whole idea behind these products is to make your life livable from within the confines of a mask and most achieve this with varying degrees of success. You can run, jog, walk and speak freely and clearly and generally maintain an almost normal level of engagement. People can once again see your pearly whites, as most of these masks are transparent.

Filtration and Protection

A lot of these new products are making claims regarding their efficacy that, in Medika’s opinion, are a stretch. These masks haven’t as yet been rigorously validated in trials and although there is no reason, in theory, that some will not offer more protection (N99/100) than the N95, most do at least meet the N95 criteria or exceed it. Importantly, they offer a really secure fit. No leakage, in or out, and in the world of masks, this fact matters.

The new strains of SARS-CoV-2 now emerging are shown to be more infectious and in our opinion, these new generation masks should offer more protection (there is no conclusive evidence yet to back this, in case you’re wondering) against the virus. It’s what they have been designed for and as stated earlier, most boast increased levels of filtration and in some instances engage other mechanisms to attempt to neutralize the virus.

Leaf Masks

Leaf Healthcare (Redcliffe Medical) offers a product that is, in our opinion way ahead of its competitors. In terms of design, sterilization options, and air filtration we think they’ve hit the sweet spot. Available in four sizes, even your three-year-old can wear one and they’ll want to when they see how cool these masks are. Medika recommended these months ago and our opinion hasn’t changed. Make this site your first stop in your online pursuit of this type of mask.

Image courtesy of Leaf

The masks are available in various configurations, The entry-level HEPA model features N99+ U15, HEPA Filtration. See-through design. N95 Filtered Exhausts, Biocompatible proprietary shape fit Silicone and starts at $59 Their starter pack for the base model is priced at $99 and includes a number of extras to get you started. 

More impressive is their sterilization unit, the Leaf Dock, which functions on UV light and can be used for sterilizing more than just your mask. These units retail from $349. Below is an expanded view of the Leaf mask.

Image courtesy of Leaf

Need more choice?

Coming soon, to a face in your neighborhood. The following brands are still in development and adopt their own unique approaches. 

We particularly like Purme

The technology it uses is different and while the styling is a little off, the approach seems great. It is the first powered mask that keeps constant-pressure with a pair of turbines, both in and out. According to their site, this offers a better seal on your face and prevents any leakage or over-pressure. It comes with its own sterilization unit that is installed with a UV-C light for self-sterilizing. This removes bacteria, viruses, fungal, and odor, before and after each wear. The silicone facepiece is removable and washable.

UVMask will also soon be available for purchase and works by zapping the air that you breathe in with UV light. According to their site, the mask is a next-generation air purification & antipollution breathing face mask with the most powerful UV-C purification technology on the market. The mask offers 8 hours of continuous use on a single charge (expandable with built-in USB port).

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The article lives hereUnderstanding Mask Terminology, N95/KN95/N99, and What to Buy
Medika Lifehttps://medika.life
Medika Life is a digital Health Publication for both the medical profession and the public. Make informed decisions about your health and stay up to date with the latest developments and technological advances in the fields of medicine.

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