The Beginner’s Guide to Respirators and Masks

How to choose the right tool to protect yourself during a health crisis

Photo by Tore F on Unsplash

It should be of no surprise to anyone that we are currently in a major health crisis. Termed COVID-19, the coronavirus has spread throughout the globe, testing almost every aspect of each country from health to trade. As a concerned individual, you may consider buying some masks to keep at home in case one of your family members fall ill. However, are masks and respirators truly equal? Why are some masks more expensive than others? What should you look for in a mask? What can you do if a mask isn’t available? Let’s find out.

Masks vs Respirators

Before we dive into the meat of this Guide, it is important to know that Surgical Masks and Respirators are two different types of protection. Respirators tend to be more expensive than surgical masks as they are often more hardy and do offer more protection. However, is the extra protection really necessary during this current crisis?

Photo by Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash

Surgical Masks
As its name suggest, surgical masks were originally meant for use during a surgery. The use was to ensure that the room could be kept sterile, and that germs from a doctor or nurse’s mouth or nose would not contaminate the patient. Over the last few years, it has seen commonplace use especially in places like China.

These masks are often also called 3-ply masks due to their characteristic of having 3 layers of protection within the mask itself. The layers are often a consistent type of material depending on the manufacturer, although common ones include wool felt, fiberglass paper, or polypropylene. The multi-layered structure of the mask acts to filter out particles more effectively, similar to how using multiple sieves in succession is more effective than just using one sieve.

Through a one-time use, the layers will start becoming dirty or clogged as they block out particles from both outside in and inside out. As there are no way to safely clean out these layers at home, it is highly recommended that these masks be disposed at the end of its use.

One thing to remember is that unlike respirators, masks are not airtight and are not meant to be. Their main role is to prevent direct splashes of particles in or out from your mouth and nose. This is different from respirators, whose role is to filter the air you breathe.

Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash

Surgical Respirators
As briefly mentioned, the primary role of a surgical respirator is to filter the air you breathe and is meant to be airtight when used. In this Guide, we will focus on the more common single-use respirators instead of heavy-duty reusable ones.

These respirators come in different grades often ranging from N95 to N100. The numbers represent the percentage of particles that these respirators are supposed to filter. For example, N95 respirators are supposed to filter out at least 95% of contaminants while N100 respirators are supposed to filter out at least 99.97% of contaminants when they are used properly.

These respirators have two key components that makes it different from a surgical mask:

The first is the shell, which has three key layers, sometimes more. The outer layer is a protective fabric which acts as a barrier between you and the environment. In the middle, the pre-filtration layer is thick and stiff to allow it to maintain a hard form, which is something that the surgical masks do not have. The final layer focuses on filtration and in ensuring that the air going in from the environment is filtered. Some types of mask have an added special particulate air filters to help you breathe easier.

Another key component is its nose clip, straps and foam. Unlike a surgical mask, a respirator needs to ensure that all air going in and out goes through its filters. As such, these components are there to create an airtight seal between you and your environment. If you are using a respirator, it is thus imperative that you put it on properly. One way to tell if you have put on the respirator properly is that it should become slightly more difficult to breathe as airflow speed is reduced.

That being said, most authorities around the world such as FDA in the United States have decreed that it is not necessary to use a respirator in our current health crisis. This is because the most common transmission of COVID-19 is through respiratory droplets such as through an infected person coughing or sneezing in close vicinity. If worn properly, a surgical mask would be sufficient in protecting you against these direct transmission. Another common transmission is through coming into contact with surfaces that has the virus on it, which is why several authorities have warned against touching your nose, mouth or eyes. The surgical mask would also serve as an effective barrier to prevent your hands from coming into direct contact with your nose or mouth.

Most importantly, there is a worldwide shortage of respirators and it is crucial that these respirators go to frontline healthcare workers as they will require it to deal with not just patients with COVID-19, but other form of diseases that may be transmitted through airborne methods. Just because there is an outbreak of coronavirus does not mean that other diseases are taking a break, and the last thing we need is having to deal with multiple outbreaks concurrently.

What to look out for when buying a Mask

Photo by De an Sun on Unsplash

When you choose to buy a mask either at your local store or through online channels, it may be easy to get lost in the sea of brands that exist. Each brand touts their mask as the most effective way to protect yourself in this health crisis, but what should you really look out for?

Manufacturer
First things first, ensure that you are getting what you are buying. If you are buying a surgical mask from Brand X, make sure that the label Brand X is etched somewhere on the mask itself. The reason for this is that there are cases where masks are bought at a low quality and then repackaged, rebranded and resold at a much higher price. Especially in this climate, it is crucial that you do not fall prey to scams or substandard surgical masks that are being touted as the mask to end all viruses.

Certification
Depending on where the masks were manufactured, most countries require the masks to go through a strict level of checks and certifications to ensure that the masks are able to serve their touted objectives. When you are choosing the ideal brand, ensure that the masks from these brands have the necessary certification. Some examples are the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) certification from the United States, or the European Standards in Europe.

Filtration Efficiency
Filtration Efficiency is how effectively the mask can filter out contaminant from the outside environment, which is often represented by a percentage. For example, 80% filtration efficiency means that the mask can filter out 80% of the contaminants. While you probably do not need 99.97% filtration efficiency in your mask, a surgical mask should be at least 80% filtration efficient. This means that when you purchase a surgical mask, ensure that its’ filtration efficiency is at least 80%, which should be certified by a health authority such as NIOSH.

Expiry Date
With the global shortfall in masks and respirators, suppliers are digging deep into their stash… too deep. Reports are surfacing on how masks that have sold or sent out are clearly expired. Just like how even canned food can go bad after several years, masks can go bad too. As a rule of thumb, unused masks and respirators are valid for about three years from the manufacturing date if they are not opened and stored in a dry and clean location. Any longer than that, consider throwing it out unless you have absolutely no alternate mask choices.

Materials Used
As briefly touched on earlier, a mask can be made out of different kinds of materials ranging from wool felt to polypropylene. When choosing a mask, ensure that you are not allergic to the materials that are being used in that mask. Besides that, as long as the mask is properly certified and has a high enough filtration efficiency, it should not be a big concern.

Fit
Just like masks, we come in different shapes and sizes. Just like how you would not buy a shoe that is a size too big or a size too small, you should not be buying a mask that does not fit well. The mask should fit snugly on the bottom half of your face, covering completely your nose, mouth and chin. If you are purchasing a respirator, it should have an airtight fit on your nose and mouth. It is useless getting the best mask on the market if it does not fit well and allow contaminants into your nose and mouth from weak points in the mask.

Alternatives to Masks and Respirators

Some of us are living in areas where masks and respirators are still readily available and at a reasonable cost. However, some of us are not. If you live in an area that is either too rural or overwhelmed by the demand for masks and respirators, there are still actions you can take to minimise your chances of catching the coronavirus.

Make your own Cloth Masks
In a study by Cambridge University, a cloth mask has been shown to not be as effective as a commercial surgical mask. However, in our current world where the surgical mask and respirator supply chain is overworked, having a cloth mask can be better than not having a mask on at all. When making your very own cloth mask, there are a few key considerations including the materials you use, whether you choose to have multiple layers in your mask and the importance of ensuring that each side of the mask is properly marked.

The materials you choose when making your mask can make or break the effectiveness of that mask. In the same Cambridge study, researchers tested various types of materials concluding that 100% cotton t-shirts and pillow cases are the best materials due to their breathability and ability to filter out contaminants at about 70% filtration efficiency .

The study also tested the use of a multi-layered home-made mask against a single-layered one and concluded that having two-layers of the above materials just increased efficiency by 2%. Given that having multiple layer will decrease the ability for you to breathe normally in that mask, it is probably not a good idea given the low increase in filtration efficiency.

Most importantly, ensure that you know which side of the mask faces out and which side faces in. As the aim of your homemade mask is to filter out contaminants, the last thing you would want is to put the mask the wrong way on and bring in the filtered contaminants instead.

You can find some instructions on sewing your own cloth mask here.

Clean your face and hands regularly
The coronavirus has the ability to stay on copper surfaces for up to 4 hours, on cardboard for up to 24 hours, and up to 3 days on plastic and stainless steel. Given the need for us to touch these types of surfaces multiple times a day be it opening doors or using utensils, it stands to reason the importance of regularly cleaning our hands. As many of us have the unconscious habit of touching our faces, we will need to clean our faces on a regular basis as well.

According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States, you should wash your hands with an alcohol-based hand sanitiser before you enter and exit a medical facility. For other day-to-day interactions with your environment, soap and water is the way to go. The reason why your hand sanitiser should be alcohol-based is because studies have shown that hand sanitiser with at least 60 to 95% alcohol concentration are more effective at killing germs than hand sanitisers with a lower alcohol concentration or no alcohol in them.

Social Distancing
In a nutshell, social distancing involves minimising human contact in society in order to stop the spread of a highly contagious disease. In the case of COVID-19, several authorities around the world have begun instituting social distancing measures such as implementing work from home schemes, closing down entertainment venues and even locking down the entire country.

While social distancing may involve being stuck at home or in your home country, its positive impact cannot be discounted. In the case of COVID-19, you can be infected and spread the virus without even showing any symptoms. What this means is that you may think you are perfectly healthy, walking around touching doorknobs and hugging your loved ones while passing the coronavirus to them. They then go on to touch other objects and pass it to other people, creating a chain reaction of unthinkable proportions. With responsible social distancing such as staying at home and not going out unless absolutely necessary, you are able to keep the virus isolated within yourself, preventing the chain reaction from even taking place.

Stand Together

All in all, it is important that we are aware of the types of protection that we are building against the coronavirus be it in the form of procuring the right protection or instituting personal social distancing rules. The virus obeys no geographical rules and ultimately tests our ability as humankind to stand together. What each of us do may seem small, but will lead to a huge impact as every one of us do our part and fight against this threat together.

About The Beginner’s Guide:
The Beginner’s Guide series provides you with a quick understanding of everyday items that you come in contact with. This includes articles on how something works, where something originated from, or how to make something better. All to provide you with tidbits of information that you can use to show off at your next dinner party. Amidst this health crisis, Season 2 of The Guide will focus on how you can better protect yourself and your loved ones.

Author’s Endnote:
With several countries initiating lockdown and implementing measures to enforce social distancing, it is more important than ever that we trust our health authorities and practice responsibility in the actions that we take. I hope that this Guide is able to shed some light on what to look out for when purchasing a mask, and why we should not buy or hoard respirators and instead leave them for frontline healthcare workers who require it more urgently than we do.

As per my previous Guides, if any of the information is inaccurate or if there is a certain topic you wish to find out more about, please feel free to drop a comment on this article! See you next Guide!

The Guide provides you with an understanding of the world around you, all to sound smarter at your next dinner party.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store