Mask-wearing has been shown to be one of the most effective (not to mention one of the easiest) ways to curb the spread of illness-causing microbes, such as coronavirus, which are transmitted via airborne particles. This is most likely to occur when people sneeze or cough but even regular speaking and breathing can spread these airborne droplets. Face masks — now mandatory in some states and required in many more public places throughout the U.S. — can trap the majority of airborne particles, but not all masks are made equally. To help you understand the differences, we’ve written up a handy face mask buying guide that details the various types of facial coverings, the certifications to look for, and where you can buy them right now.
Types of Masks
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Cloth masks are one of the two most common types of masks you’ll see thanks to their low cost and simplicity. They’re simple enough that you can actually make them yourself if you’re handy with a sewing machine, but bear in mind that cloth masks (and obviously homemade ones) do not have any sort of official certification or rating for efficiency. If you only need a cheap and basic mask — for example, one you are only going to wear for relatively short periods of time when moving through public spaces — then a cloth mask might be enough. Choosing one with two layers of cloth instead of one is also a good idea; for more serious protection, however, you’ll want to consider an N95 or KN95 mask instead.
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The second most common type of mask available right now are simple surgical masks. You need to be careful with these, though, as there are a ton of cheap ones being offered that are only single-ply (which will not do much to protect you and others from airborne droplets). Surgical masks are good for their low cost and the fact that they are disposable — you can buy them in bulk for handing out to multiple people, for instance — but you want to source them from a good FDA-registered entity such as N95 Mask Company or Honest PPE Supply. Surgical face masks from these companies are three-ply, meaning they use three layers of fine fabric instead of just one or two, which is our recommendation.
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Arguably the best combination of affordability and effectiveness are N95 face masks. These are lightweight, comfortable, breathable, and economical, and while they’re more expensive per unit than three-ply surgical masks, they actually bear an official N95 certification for filtration efficacy from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). There are a few different types available, including standard N95-V1 face masks (similar in design to the KN95 masks), cup-style N95 masks (most commonly known variety), and the new Respokare N95 masks (the variety with FDA OUK classification). They all bear the N95 certification, which means that their filtration capabilities are pretty much identical, but the Respokare N95 face masks feature an additional anti-microbial treatment that neutralizes viruses within minutes of contact.
Face masks with an N95 certification are rated to block 95% of airborne particles as small as 0.3 microns. Viruses are smaller than 0.3 microns, but the airborne particles that the viruses actually “ride” on (viruses don’t just float around by themselves, they need some sort of transmission medium) are usually larger than that, making these masks effective at capturing most aerosolized droplets formed by coughing and sneezing.
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Much of our personal protective equipment is made overseas nowadays, but you shouldn’t assume that masks and other PPE that are made in places like China don’t meet U.S. safety standards. When shopping around for face masks, you’ll see plenty of ones bearing the KN95 certification, which is the Chinese government’s equivalent to our N95 regulatory standard for airborne particulate filtration.
These are usually a more economical alternative to N95 masks, and as long as you’re getting KN95-certified facial coverings from a reputable company such as N95 Mask Co. or Honest PPE Supply, you can be sure that they’re the functional equivalent of N95 masks. KN95 masks are also listed on the FDA’s Appendix A list of NIOSH-approved Chinese-made protection equipment (more on that below), meaning that these facial coverings, although manufactured overseas, meet U.S. regulatory standards for PPE.
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You’ve probably seen at least a few people wearing face shields as an added layer of protection against airborne droplets. Shields such as these are not a bad idea at all, particularly for those who spend hours each day working with the public and dealing with a large number of other people (think medical professionals and customer service employees), and if you count yourself among that number, you might want to consider getting a face shield. Just remember that it’s not a replacement for a mask that covers your mouth and nose, which should always be worn underneath the shield.
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At the start of the coronavirus outbreak and subsequent public health crisis, many people were scrambling to get their hands on half-mask respirators. While these certainly work when used with the appropriate P100 filtration cartridges, these half-masks are designed for industrial applications such as construction and waste cleanup and are overkill for simple protection from airborne droplets. You’re welcome to use them if you wish, but unless you specifically need this sort of bulky and expensive respirator for professional purposes, you’re better off with lighter (and much more economical) three-ply surgical masks or N95/KN95 face masks for everyday use.
Replaceable Filter Masks
If you want a facial covering that uses reusable filtration without the bulk and expense that comes with cartridge-style respirators, you might be tempted to spring for one of these reusable filter masks — but tread carefully. These masks do not filter anything by themselves but instead utilize replaceable filters to capture airborne pollutants. The filters typically feature a PM2.5 designation, meaning that they follow EPA standards for capturing airborne particles as small as 2.5 microns. This makes them good for filtering dust and airborne pollutants (which is what they are designed for), but far less effective than N95/KN95 masks at stopping aerosolized droplets which are usually smaller than a micron — meaning we can’t recommend these for virus protection.
- Uncertified: There are pretty much no cloth masks that bear any certifications, and many surgical masks you find online will also lack any sort of official designation. That doesn’t mean that they are useless — only that no official regulatory or governing body has analyzed or certified that particular mask. Use your own judgment with uncertified facial coverings; as stated above, it’s a good idea to opt for double-layered cloth masks or three-ply surgical masks as a general rule.
- FDA-Registered: This isn’t a specific certification for masks themselves, but FDA-registered companies are entities that have been given the green light by the Food and Drug Administration to sell masks in the U.S. Surgical masks, for instance, typically do not bear any sort of advanced certification, but if you’re going to buy some, then getting them from an FDA-registered company such as N95 Mask Company or Honest PPE Supply is generally recommended.
- Appendix A: Most mask certifications come from regulatory bodies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, but the Food and Drug Administration also maintains a list of Chinese-made face masks that are NIOSH-approved. This list forms Appendix A of the FDA’s Personal Protective Equipment Emergency Use Authorizations, and the masks listed therein have all been tested and confirmed to meet the NIOSH safety standards for airborne filtration.
- NIOSH: The most common certification for face masks you’ll see is N95. This is a standard set by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, the U.S. federal agency responsible for regulations regarding work safety. Masks that bear the NIOSH N95/KN95 certification can filter 95% of particles as small as 0.3 microns and larger, which includes most airborne droplets created by talking, coughing, and sneezing. KN95 is the Chinese government’s regulatory standard for masks and the functional equivalent of the U.S. N95 standard.
- CDC NIOSH: NIOSH is a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a parent U.S. agency that handles public health concerns and is itself part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIOSH focuses primarily on occupational safety and injury prevention (which covers personal protection equipment such as face masks), but since most people are now wearing facial coverings for the prevention of viral infection, you may see mask certifications that reference both the CDC and NIOSH as they are parts of the same governing body.
- FDA OUK: Along with the list of NIOSH-approved, Chinese-made masks in Appendix A, the FDA maintains some of its own classifications for face masks and other personal protective equipment. The OUK classification is a new one made for the Respokecare N95 masks available from N95 Mask Company, which not only block airborne particles in accordance with the NIOSH N95 standard but also feature an anti-microbial treatment that renders 99.9% of viruses inactive within minutes of contact.