With the rise of the highly contagious Omicron variant of Covid-19, there has been an increased call for better quality masks. With so many options to choose from it can be hard to know what to look for in a mask. The following is a breakdown of the various types and the benefits and disadvantages of each.
NIOSH Approved Respirators
Respirators that are approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) meet rigorous US standards. The most common of these is the N95, but others include N99, N100, P99, P100, R95, R99, and R100. Some of those listed may offer even better protection than an N95. When in short supply, as was the case at the start of the pandemic, it is recommended that these types of respirators be prioritized for healthcare workers. N95s are, however, widely available as of the start of 2022.
Note that true NIOSH approved masks will include an approval label that can be found either on the box or in the instructions. There will also be an abbreviated approval marking on the mask.
Fit and filtration are of the utmost importance when selecting a mask or respirator. When fitting properly, N95s filter up to 95 percent of particles in the air. A video demonstrating how to ensure a proper fit can be found at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tzpz5fko-fg. While one of the safest options available, they are not meant to be reused and can be costly. Some experts recommend that for those wishing to reuse their N95, they place it in an open paper bag and allow it to air out for at least a week before reusing.
It should be noted that respirators of this nature can generally not be found in children’s sizes as they were created for adult-use in specific fields.
Internationally Approved Respirators
The most common form of an internationally approved respirator is a KN95. While both N95 and KN95 masks purport to filter up to 95 percent of particles from the air, the biggest difference is how they are certified. The N95 is the US standard and the KN95 is the Chinese one. Like their KN95 counterpart, a KF94 respirator meets South Korean standards and an FFP2 Europe’s.
The CDC estimates that approximately 60 percent of KN95 masks on the market are counterfeit. The following link allows users to see if the manufacturer of their KN95 is registered with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA): https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfrl/rl.cfm. There are helpful lists on the FDA website as well including which manufacturers were granted Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for use in a healthcare setting.
There are a number of KN95 masks available in children’s sizes through retailers such as Amazon though it would be wise for consumers to do their due diligence in ensuring that they aren’t spending their money on counterfeit ones.
While not as effective as authentic N95s or KN95s, disposable or surgical masks, which are made from multiple non-woven layers, still offer protection. Like all masks or respirators, the fit is vital. The mask should fit snugly and should cover both the nose and the mouth completely. Masks with nose wires allow the users to customize them for a better fit. The CDC also recommends that wearers fold and tuck in unnecessary material under the edges. Videos on how to do so can be found online.
Two years into the pandemic, the variety of options for cloth masks seems infinite. Things to look for in a cloth mask include multiple layers of tightly woven breathable fabric, a nose wire, and a proper fit. Things to avoid in a cloth mask include a single layer fabric that does not block light, exhalation valves or vents, and an ill fit.
In general, the percentage of particles filtered by both surgical and cloth masks differ depending what source you look at though they are always significantly less than both KN95 and N95 respirators. While the quality of cloth masks also varies greatly, it is generally presumed that surgical masks offer better protection. It is sometimes recommended that those without access to KN95 or N95 masks layer a cloth mask over the top of a surgical mask for a better fit.
While many users prefer the comfort and cost savings of a cloth mask, some experts warn that cloth masks alone offer little protection against variants such as Omicron. CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen said recently on CNN Newsroom, “Cloth masks are little more than facial decorations. There’s no place for them in light of Omicron.” Many hospitals require that patients and visitors swap out their masks for surgical ones.
With all of that said, any mask is preferable to none at all.