Surgical Masks
November 06, 2020

Surgical Masks, N95 Masks, Dust Masks, Which One Is Right for You?

As the coronavirus (COVID-19) rears its head across Canada, it’s essential for healthcare workers and the general public alike to follow proper safety measures.

In addition to using guidelines such as social distancing and hand hygiene, this also refers to face masks.

But whether you are choosing personal protective equipment (PPE) as a healthcare professional or recommended face coverings as an everyday citizen, it can get a bit tricky to get the right item.

From a surgical mask Canada health experts trust with its function to a paper dust mask that’s widely available, you can be presented with confusing choices at every other step.

The following information can help you determine which of the common mask types is the right fit for you to make an informed decision.

Surgical Masks, N95 Masks, Dust Masks, Which One Is Right for You?

Medical Masks: Go for a Surgical Mask Canada Residents Can Trust With General Usage

Use: General healthcare settings, general public activity.

Accessibility: Available to the general public.

Surgical masks are also generally referred to as medical masks. Before COVID-19, they were typically associated with healthcare professionals such as surgeons, dentists, nurses, and emergency medical technicians (EMTs).

These masks are made out of a synthetic material that is soft to the touch and use multiple layers in their structure. Their design usually comprises three layers to absorb fluids and viscous material, but this number can increase depending upon the manufacturer. Surgical masks are designed so this soft fiber is horizontally pleated to cover the nose and mouth area with additional protection.

Healthcare professionals wear these masks to protect themselves from splashes and splatter while treating patients. However, in the COVID-19 era, they can also be used by the general public to absorb the wearer’s respiratory droplets from their nose and mouth. This helps curb the spread through asymptomatic infections, which are COVID-19 patients that show no symptoms and may not even know that they have the disease.

Since asymptomatic infections can still transmit the virus to others, everyone must wear masks wherever social distancing is not possible. This reduces the risk of infectious respiratory droplets escaping into the air and spreading the virus to others. This is also in line with the advice of Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam, who suggests the general public wear face coverings when maintaining a distance of 2 meters from others is out of the question.

Since these masks are disposable, affordable, and widely available across various vendors, they are a more convenient alternative to cloth masks. This is why a surgical mask Canada residents can trust is often seen on people during COVID-19. This includes general healthcare workers who don’t actively treat novel coronavirus patients and the general public that is trying to curb the spread of the virus.

Filtering Facepiece Respirators: Choose the N95 Protection in Healthcare Settings

Use: COVID-19 treatment settings, industrial settings, construction sites.

Accessibility: Advised to be used by professionals only.

Filtering facepiece respirators (FFRs) use a particulate air filter to clean the air around the wearer from dust, mist, and fume particles. The N95 masks are a shining example of this PPE.

Unlike general cloth face coverings or surgical masks that absorb the wearer’s respiratory droplets, the N95 mask actively filters particles from the air breathed in by the wearer. These masks are professionally fitted to form a seal against the face and have special filters built into them, which allow for this functionality without any additional equipment. This also makes them a perfect fit for various healthcare and construction settings where the air is full of harmful dust, fumes, and mists. However, they don’t work against gases or chemicals.

The N95 mask can clear the air of at least 95 percent of particles as tiny as 0.3 microns. While the virus that causes COVID-19 is 0.1 micron in size, it typically latches onto bigger droplets to transmit from one person to another. This allows these particles to be caught through the N95’s filter mechanism quite effectively.

But given that N95 masks filter the air that’s breathed in and not the air that’s breathed out by the wearer, they only protect the mask's user. In case the mask’s wearer is infected with COVID-19, they can still spread it to others.

This makes N95 respirators ineffective equipment to be used by the general public, but a highly critical PPE for healthcare professionals who actively treat COVID-19 patients. Since healthcare staff in novel coronavirus treatment rooms are already interacting with infected patients, they can safely use N95 masks without putting anyone else at risk.

As a result, the availability of N95 masks is restricted to healthcare and industrial professionals who have to protect themselves from harmful contaminants. For the general public, suggested alternatives come in the form of a cloth face covering or a surgical mask Canada residents can rely upon. This makes sure that in cases where COVID-19 infects the mask's wearer, they don’t spread the virus to healthy individuals.

Dust Masks: They Are Not to Be Confused With Powerful FFRs

Use: Industrial settings, construction sites.

Accessibility: Advised to be used by industrial professionals only.

At the surface, the label of “dust masks” is simply a different way to refer to FFRs. These masks also use particulate filters to block out dust particles for the wearer, making them sound so different from the N95 respirator.

However, dust masks are typically made out of paper instead of other industrial-grade materials. They also don’t pass the N95 standard, which is followed by U.S. agencies and institutions in Canada to determine the efficacy of a mask against non-oil based dust, fume, and mist contaminants.

Where the N95 standard promises the filtration of at least 95 percent of contaminants of up to 0.3 microns, typical dust masks don’t offer the same protection. This makes them ineffective in COVID-19 healthcare settings.

Additionally, these dust masks are structured in a different way than N95 masks, which affects their proper fit and their overall results. While an N95 mask uses two headbands that fix on the top and the bottom of the head, a dust mask typically uses one band. As a result, these masks do not always create a seal against the face and do not necessarily pass the fit-test requirements by definition.

Some of these masks have two bands or have a better fit, but that doesn’t make them applicable in healthcare settings. That’s why, in COVID-19 treatment settings, Health Canada advises the use of N95 masks that are approved by the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), or the use of international standards such as KN95 that follow the same guidelines.

When it comes to the general public setting, dust masks lag in that aspect as well. In most cases, they only offer moderate protection to the wearer and little to no absorption of exhaled respiratory droplets. This makes them a dubious choice as an alternative to a cloth mask or a surgical mask Canada residents can trust without any worries.

With these factors in mind, you can quickly move forward with making an informed decision while choosing your masks. This helps you protect yourself and those around you to the best of your ability.