Which Face Mask Should You Choose? Determining the differences between KN95 respirators, disposable face masks, and cloth face coverings.
We are just now starting to open the US economy after wide-scale social distancing measures were put in place, and we are still exploring what it might look like. One thing we at Wyze expect is that the world will be cautious as we transition back to normal life. That likely means months of wearing some sort of face covering when out in public. But with so many options out there, which should you choose?
We put together this guide for our users to help compare a few of the most common options out there: N95 and KN95 respirators, disposable face masks, and cloth face coverings.
Full disclosure, I work at Wyze, so I am going to talk specifically about some of the masks that we’re selling as part of our COVID-19 initiative. This guide, however, should help you make the right call on what mask to use regardless of where you purchase them. The intent is to help readers better understand the options out there.
The new norm
Here in our local county, King County, Washington, leaders have issued a directive asking residents to wear face coverings in most public settings. That means when you’re in any retail stores, stores that sell food or beverages, restaurants that provide takeout, or when you use public transportation, you should be wearing a face covering.
King County isn’t the first county with a government-issued directive. Last month, the city of San Francisco issued a requirement to wear a face covering when out in public. As of May 11th, Kentucky is also directing the public to wear face masks.
We expect the requirement to wear a face mask in public to become the new norm for the foreseeable future.
What’s the point of covering your face?
Remember, the primary reason for wearing a face covering in public is NOT to prevent the wearer from being infected by others. Instead, it is to prevent the wearer from infecting others. Recent coronavirus research has strong evidence indicating that carriers of the virus may not know they are infected for up to 14 days before symptoms start to show. During this time, they can unknowingly infect those around them by exhaling large droplets that can come into contact with nearby people and surfaces.
The coverings required in the directives for King County, San Francisco, and Kentucky are not intended to filter viruses and bacteria out of the air. To do that, you’d need an additional level of protection found only in respirators. We will get more into that in a bit.
What are your options?
Really, when it comes to face coverings, you have four real options:
- The standard disposable blue kind (sometimes called general use face masks, or non-medical)
- Medical-grade disposable masks
- Cloth face coverings
- Respirator masks
The new requirements for face coverings have led to a huge influx of mask demand and we are starting to see them pop up everywhere, from your local grocer to the convenience store down the street. In an update on May 13th, the CDC called out the many disposable masks counterfeits they are now seeing on the market.
Most people don’t need to worry about counterfeits. It starts to become a larger issue for those in the medical space due to the required tests and certifications needed. If you know your masks need to be certified, you will need to be more selective in where you get your masks.
Which to choose
Which mask to choose really depends on if you just want to meet local requirements (and have good karma for helping others stay safe) or if you want to protect yourself from inhaled particulates.
Truth be told, most cloth or disposable face coverings will meet the needed requirements for the average person going out in public.
That’s because the main point of wearing a face covering is to prevent exhaled droplets from spreading. But both cloth coverings and disposable face masks provide almost no protection from inhaled particulates (i.e., viruses and bacteria). For that, you will need to go beyond a covering and into the respirator realm.
Let’s get into a few more specifics about the different types of masks:
Standard disposable face masks
When we say “standard disposable face masks,” we are talking about the blue kind with a metal nose piece and elastic ear loops. This is the most common type of disposable mask that you’ll come across.
Don’t confuse these with surgical or medical-grade masks. They may look just like them, but standard disposable masks have one major difference: They have not been tested against the standards that qualify them to be labeled as medical-grade masks. For that reason, they should not, and likely will not, be used by medical workers and first responders.
A standard disposable mask is the most affordable option out there aside from using a washable, cloth face mask.
These are typically made of a 3-ply non-woven material (usually Spunbond Polypropylene (SPP), Polypropylene (PP), and Cellulose). They are usually much easier to breathe through than cloth coverings. So, if you are having trouble with your glasses fogging up, these masks may be a good option.
Their primary purpose is to block fluids exhaled by the wearer. They can sometimes protect the wearer from exhaling large droplets through the mask, but they are not designed to filter out small particulates such as bacteria and viruses.
The standard disposable face masks are definitely the most popular masks that we have as part of our Wyze In Response initiative. You can pick up a pack of 50 for only $29.99 (including shipping) on Wyze.com.
Medical-grade disposable masks
This is the mask most people are familiar with. They are similar in appearance to standard disposable face masks, but are manufactured to a higher standard that allows them to pass the tests required to be considered medical-grade.
The typical standards required by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be considered medical or surgical-grade are ASTM F2100–11 (2011 update) standards. This specifies five different performance areas in which the masks must be tested and shown to perform at the required level:
- Bacterial Filtration Efficiency (BFE): Must be greater than 95% efficiency.
- Particulate Filtration Efficiency (PFE): Must filter sub-micron particles of 0.1 or smaller.
- Fluid Resistance: Must stop a splash or synthetic blood at various pressures (high, medium, low).
- Delta P (Pressure Differential) i.e., Breathability: Depending on the barrier level of the mask, it must have a certain level of breathability.
- Flame Spread: Must be considered flame resistant.
Within the ASTM F2100 standard, there are three levels of certifications that allow for a low, medium, and high barrier, all of which have specific levels they must meet for each of the five tests.
However, during this time of crisis, the FDA is temporarily allowing masks that have a fluid resistance test certification only (ASTM F1862/F1862M-17).
Wyze has sourced surgical masks as part of the Wyze In Response initiative. Our masks have been tested to have passed the fluid resistance test and are ASTM F1862/F1862M-17 Level II barrier certified. You can pick them up in a 50-pack for only $39.99. We are also selling these surgical-grade masks to medical institutions in bulk. Fill out our bulk request here or just use our bulk buy listing if you are with a medical institution in need.
Similar to standard disposable masks, surgical-grade face masks are primarily intended to protect others from the wearer’s respiratory emissions. They also help prevent the wearer from coming into contact with large droplets, splashes, or sprays of bodily or other hazardous fluids common in a medical environment.
Cloth masks are all the rage right now because they come in all different colors and patterns, and can be made with a few strips of fabric and a sewing machine. You probably know a few people making masks at home and selling them online. These are sometimes called “vanity face masks,” and now many clothing companies have repurposed their factories to make these for the surge in demand.
These masks are the most economical option because you can rewash them and use them hundreds of times. A downside is that they have a tendency to be less breathable (though that ultimately depends on the fabric), leading to them getting hot against the face and fogging up your glasses. They can also be more difficult to breathe through, though again, this depends on the fabric that the mask is made of.
Cloth face coverings DO NOT provide respiratory protection. These are similar to disposable masks in their intended purpose: They prevent the wearer from spreading the virus through exhaled droplets. The good news is that these will meet requirements for the various government face mask directives.
Okay, respirators are where you really start getting into virus protection for the wearer and they come in MANY different disposable and reusable versions. For the purpose of this post, I’m talking about the N95 and its most common substitute, the KN95.
You will have a hard time finding N95 respirators if you are not in the medical or emergency response fields. The CDC states that it “does not recommend that the general public wear N95 respirators to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including coronavirus (COVID-19). Those are critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for health care workers and other medical first responders, as recommended by current CDC guidance.”
The CDC also states that, due to critical shortages in the supply of N95 respirators, it is allowing similar respirators to the N95 to be used as substitutes. These substitutes are respirator masks that meet the various international standards similar to the US’s N95 standard.
Most commonly, you will hear about the KN95. This is the Chinese substitute for the N95 (GB2626–2006) and because of China’s early exposure to COVID-19 and their massive manufacturing capabilities, they are the most commonly available substitute. Even still, these can be difficult to find.
We have a limited supply of KN95 respirator masks available through Wyze.com that we sourced for our customers as part of the Wyze In Response initiative. They come in packs of 10 or 20 for $29.99 and $59.99 (including shipping) respectively. Our sourced masks have been tested by an independent testing company to meet the necessary requirements to qualify for the KN95 standard.
The intended purpose for the N95 and KN95 masks is to “[reduce the] wearer’s exposure to particles including small particle aerosols and large droplets (only non-oil aerosols).” They both have “95” in the name because they are designed to filter out at least 95% of both large and small non-oil-based particulates in the air.
To be effective, they must create a seal around the wearer’s face. This can be problematic if you have facial hair. The CDC has released this infographic guide to respirators and facial hair. Men out there, if you plan to wear a respirator and want a truly effective seal, consider shaving.
Obviously, the primary advantage of the N95 and KN95 is that unlike all the other types of face masks on this page, they protect the wearer. Through testing, they have demonstrated the ability to help filter out viruses and bacteria.
Having tried on a couple of different KN95 respirators myself, I would say they are somewhere in the middle between cloth face coverings and disposable face masks as far as how hot they feel against your face. They are easy to breathe through but will likely still cause glasses to fog up.
Choose the mask that meets your needs.
Any of the options above will meet the government’s directive for face coverings. Ultimately, which mask you choose comes down to what you need. Ask yourself:
- Are you trying to meet the basic requirements that governments and businesses are putting into place?
- Are you expecting to interact with a lot of people regularly, like in a retail or restaurant setting?
- Are you in the medical field and need a real respirator mask for the highest level of protection?
- Do you just need something that covers your face and matches your wardrobe?
Choosing the right face mask comes down to when and where you need to use it, and how often you’ll be wearing it. No matter which one you pick, be sure to wear it correctly to protect yourself and those around you. Stay safe!