A Quick Guide to N95, KN95, and Surgical Masks

Masks are becoming a commonplace part of personal protective equipment (PPE) for many Americans. This includes industries that didn’t use protective masks prior to the COVID era, or their use of masks was seldom and selective. Many Americans are finding that there’s a learning curve with the types of masks that are available, and what is most appropriate for use. Assuming you can find them.

Not all masks are the same. We’ll break down the masks types to provide guidance for you to choose which type is the most appropriate for your circumstance.

What is a N95?

N95 respiratory masks are filtering facepiece respirators, or “FFRs.” They’re also known as disposable respirators. N95s meet specific physical and performance characteristics regulated by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Pandemics and other emergencies cause elevated demand for FFRs, such as N95s, because of their effectiveness in filtering efficiency and the size of the particles that they block.

N is the respirator rating letter class, which stands for non-oil. If there are no oil-based particulates present, you can use the mask in the work environment. You might see other mask ratings like “R” that mean resistant to oil for eight hours.

95 have a 95% filter efficiency rating. For comparison, masks ending in 100 are 99.7% efficient, which is the same as a HEPA quality filter.

N95s filter out contaminants like dust, mists, and fumes. The minimum size of .3 microns of particulates and large droplets, including viruses and bacteria, won’t pass through the barrier, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC.) The filtration material on the mask is an electrostatic non-woven polypropylene fiber.

N95 is the United States performance standard (NIOSH-42CFR84) for filtering facepiece respirators. Other countries, such as China, have their own performance standard, known as KN95, which we’ll discuss later.

Who should use N95s?

Pandemics cause the available supply of N95s to be extremely limited due to strong demand. It’s important that only those who need to use N95s do so. This generally means:

  • Healthcare professionals where the risk to exposure is high, particularly when dealing with COVID-19 positive patients, or symptomatic patients.
  • Correctional officers directly managing inmates infected with COVID-19

Keep in mind not everyone is able to wear a respirator due to medical conditions that may be made worse when breathing through a respirator. Before using a respirator or getting fit-tested, workers must have a medical evaluation to make sure that they are able to wear a respirator safely.

Other Important N95 tips (from CDC)

  • Achieving an adequate seal to the face is essential. United States regulations require that workers undergo an annual fit test and conduct a user seal check each time the respirator is used. Workers must pass a fit test to confirm a proper seal before using a respirator in the workplace.
  • When properly fitted and worn, minimal leakage occurs around edges of the respirator when the user inhales. This means almost all of the air is directed through the filter media.

What is a KN95 mask?

The KN95 is the Chinese standard for filtering facepiece respirators. KN95 has nearly identical performance standards as the U.S. N95, but is not regulated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

Specifically, KN95s are form-fitting masks with the same filter efficiency performance as the American N95 standard. KN95 masks are rated to capture 95% of 0.3 micron particles.

How is a KN95 different from an N95 mask?

N95 masks have slightly stricter requirements for pressure drop while inhaling. The result is that N95s are slightly more breathable than KN95 masks. N95s also have slightly stricter requirements for pressure drop while exhaling, which helps with breathability.

Is an N95 or a KN95 better?

In terms of performance, a KN95 and an N95 perform similarly. Last month, the F.D.A. issued an emergency use authorization for KN95 masks if they met certain criteria, including proof of authenticity.

As for price, the KN95s are currently the more affordable alternative and (relatively) easier to source. N95s are extremely limited in supply and predominantly used by U.S. healthcare workers.

Can I use a surgical mask or disposable mask as an alternative?

Surgical and disposable masks are effective forms of personal protective equipment for regular use, especially when you’re not coming into direct contact with COVID-19 patients or those who are symptomatic. Surgical masks are fluid resistant and provide the wearer protection against large droplets, splashes, or sprays of bodily or other hazardous fluids.

However, surgical masks are not replacements for N95s or KN95s.

Keep in mind that surgical masks do not provide the wearer with a reliable level of protection from inhaling smaller airborne particles and are not considered respiratory protection. This is why N95s and KN95s are recommended when dealing with COVID-19 positive inmates. However, if you do not have access to N95s and KN95s, a surgical mask is better than a cloth mask, and certainly, something covering your nose and mouth is better than nothing.

Where can we find protective masks?

If your facility needs help finding masks, The Warrior Foundation, with help from GUARDIAN RFID, is distributing 250,000 free masks to correctional facilities hardest hit by COVID-19. Go to WarriorFoundation.us to submit your mask request.

If your organization is interested in contributing masks or money to the Warrior Foundation, contact Kathy Nichols at kathy@warriorfoundation.us.