One of the most important yet most overlooked emergency preparedness items is an N95 face mask. There is a lot of confusion about whether N95 masks work for emergencies and how to use them properly, so I thought I’d address the issue here.
What is an N95 Mask?
An N95 mask (also called a respirator) is a mask that is worn over the face to prevent the inhalation of airborne particles. The N95 designation means that the mask will filter at least 95% of particles 0.3 microns in size.
Surgical Mask vs. N95 Mask
N95 masks look a lot like surgical masks, but they are very different things. Do not get a surgical mask and think it will protect you against germs and airborne contaminants!
- Surgical masks are designed to protect the environment from the wearer. For example, doctors wear them during surgery to prevent germs in their breath from getting into the patient.
- N95 masks protect the wearer from the environment. So, a person could wear them in a hospital to reduce the likelihood of catching someone else’s germs.
- Surgical N95 Masks: These are masks which give the protection of both surgical masks and N95 masks. If you are sick, they will prevent your germs from being transmitted while also protecting you from breathing in germs. They have been approved by NIOSH and the FDA.
Face Masks Ratings and Certifications
Never buy a face mask unless it has been approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) or meets the European Standard.
N95 is the most common NIOSH face mask rating you will find in hardware stores and online. However, there are also other ratings.
NIOSH Face Mask Ratings
- N95: Will filter at least 95% of airborne particles; not resistant to oil
- N99: Will filter at least 99% of airborne particles; not resistant to oil
- N100: Will filter at least 99.7% of airborne particles; not resistant to oil
- R95: Will filter at least 95% of airborne particles; somewhat resistant to oil
- P95: Will filter at least 95% of airborne particles; very resistant to oil
- N99: Will filter at least 99% of airborne particles; very resistant to oil
- N100: Will filter at least 99.7% of airborne particles; very resistant to oil
The European Standard uses the certification “EN-149” and not the NIOSH certification. There are three main levels of EN-149 ratings.
- P1 EN-149 Face Masks: Filters 80% of airborne particles
- P2 EN-149 Face Masks: Filters 94% of airborne particles
- P3 EN-149 Face Masks: Filters 99.5% of airborne particles
Yes, the Rating Matters!
Do NOT buy very cheap face masks which haven’t been approved! Those cheap face masks might not provide you with any real protection. Consider these study results from NIOSH and the CDC:
|Respirator/Mask Type||Polydisperse Aerosol Test|
|Monodisperse Aerosol Test (MAT) (%) (40 nm)|
|NIOSH N95||98.76 – 99.39||94.80 – 98.00|
|NIOSH P100||99.978 – 99.997||99.991-99.993|
|FDA Surgical Mask||11.94 – 98.42||27.49 – 91.02|
|Unregulated Dust Mask||12.98 – 99.00||18.37 – 95.69|
Yes, some unregulated dust masks might actually provide protection – but you have no way of knowing for sure if it doesn’t have the NIOSH rating or a European Standard rating.
Do N95 Masks Really Protect You from Hazards?
There is a lot of confusion and controversy about whether N95 masks really protect wearers. As with a lot of things related to emergency preparedness, there is no one answer here. It depends on the type of emergency in question.
N95 masks will protect against at least 95% of airborne particles 0.3 microns in size. To give you an idea of how small 0.3 microns is, consider these particle sizes:
- Anthrax: 1-5 microns
- Abestos:7-90 microns
- Bacteria:3-60 microns
- Car emissions: 1-150 microns
- Burning wood:2-3 microns
- Coal dust: 1-100 microns
- Household dust:05-100 microns
- Mold: 3-12 microns
- Pesticides and herbicides:001 microns
- Skin flakes:5-10 microns
- Plant spores: 3-100 microns
- Smoke from synthetic materials: 1-50 microns
- Viruses:005-0.3 microns
As you can see from these particle sizes, an N95 mask will provide good protection against larger particles you’d find in the air, such as in situations where there is a lot of dust. For example, it would be wise to wear an N95 face mask when cleaning up debris from a natural disaster.
Even though viruses are often smaller than 0.3 microns, there is ample evidence which shows that N95 masks do protect against viruses. If you or people around you have a virus, then wearing an N95 face mask can help. However, during a major viral outbreak, you’d be safer with a higher level of protection than what the N95 masks can offer.
N95 Masks Are Useless Against Chemicals and Gases
What preppers want to know is whether an N95 mask would work against biological or chemical attacks. Of how much protection they will provide, Defense Analyst Victor Utgoff says:
“Not much, but better than nothing.”
If a bioterrorism attack were to occur, the bacteria would likely be dispered in particle form, so wearing an N95 mask might help. However, Utgoff goes on to say that:
“Against chemical attack and gas, (N95 masks are) worthless.”
For those sorts of attacks, you’d need a much more sophisticated face mask with a cartridge.
The N95 Mask Has to Fit Right to Be Effective!
If you are going to wear an N95 mask, you better make sure it fits right! Otherwise the face mask will be virtually worthless because of all of the leakage which will occur.
N95 face masks and NOT recommended for children or for people with facial hair. If you have facial hair and want to get protection from your N95 mask, you’ll have to duct tape it around your head. Not very comfortable, but better than breathing in asbestos, bacteria, mold and other pathogens!
How to Make Sure the Respirator Fits
When the respirator is fitted and on correctly, it will form a seal around your face. Here’s how you can check the seal:
- Negative Pressure Check: Put both hands over the N95 mask and breathe in deeply. The N95 mask should pull towards your face. You’ll be able to see the mask slightly collapsing. No air should escape.
- Positive Pressure Check: Now breathe out deeply. If your mask has an exhalation valve, then you’ll want to cover this valve when doing the test. Make sure you don’t feel any air leaking out.
If you can’t create a proper seal with the N95 mask, then you need to try a different size or model. You should TEST YOUR N95 MASK FIT BEFORE AN EMERGENCY OCCURS! You don’t want to wait until disaster strikes to find out that you’ve got the wrong size mask!
Tip: Buy N95 masks which have a metal nosepiece. The nosepiece can be bent so it fits your nose and will provide a better fit.
The Bottom Line on N95 Masks?
When it comes to emergency preparedness, N95 masks are far from perfect. If fitted properly, they will protect you from many particles like mold, dust, and many bacteria and viruses. However, they aren’t going to protect you from chemical or gas attacks.
If you can afford it, I’d recommend getting a full-face cartridge mask (aka gas mask). However, keep some N95 masks with your emergency supplies too! The N95 masks are much cheaper and a heck of a lot less conspicuous to wear.
You can find a list of NIOSH-approved N95 masks here.