Ever since the emergence of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and the respiratory disease COVID-19, global healthcare leaders have capitulated back and forth regarding the use of face masks to prevent infection. Some countries – especially those who had prior experience with respiratory epidemics such as SARS and MERS – immediately encouraged the use of face masks in everyday life. Others, including the United States, discouraged the use of face masks – specifically N95 respirator maks – due to the need for rationing for frontline healthcare workers.

In the weeks since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, countries have called for all individuals to begin to use face masks while in public to decrease the chance of infection and spread of the virus. However, the information regarding the various mask options remains confusing and convoluted, leading to some individuals being unsure of what mask to use. Here are the basic differences between surgical face masks and respirators such as N95 and KN95.

The popularity of protective breathing masks has grown steadily since the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2002.1 But the use of a protective mask dates back nearly a century, to when a pandemic of influenza (1918-1920) killed up to 5% of the world’s population.

Common Surgical and Dust Masks (Public Use)

What is a “surgical” mask? Typically, these masks are commonly used by professionals in the surgical, dental, and medical professions that are used for common hygienic purposes. Similarly, dust masks are those masks most commonly used by construction and cleanup companies. Both of these types of masks are the most commonly manufactured and cheapest options by which to protect yourself from most airborne contagions and particulate matter. They also serve to keep the wearer from releasing some respiratory droplets into the air around them through coughing or sneezing.

While surgical and dust masks are great options for practical, everyday protection, they are not the most efficient at filtering ultrafine particles that may sneak through the material. They are also looser fitting, so they are not 100% guaranteed to protect from every instance of contact with a virus such as SARS-CoV-2 – especially if the virus is airborne or ejected forcefully from an infected individual nearby.

N95 & KN95 Respirators

In a situation where an infected individual is actively and uncontrollably shedding infectious disease, respirators such as N95 and KN95 are necessary. While these masks may look similar to common face masks, they are specifically designed for protection from small particulate matter and preventing air leakage. These respirators must meet specific guidelines and standards in order to be certified for professional use. 

The main difference between N95 and KN95 respirator masks is their manufacturing location. N95 masks are manufactured in the United States while KN95 are made in China. Both, when manufactured to meet standards and worn properly, offer similar amounts of filtration and protection. A helpful chart created by 3M regarding the performance of each respirator mask can be found here.

Comparing The Statistics

Across the world, researchers have conducted studies to compare the success rates of the various masks types to see which option provides the best protection. Notably, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has conducted research into respiratory masks to give guidance for occupational workers who may need to begin wearing masks to protect themselves and others. 

When the various masks were tested, they were strapped to a mannequin that was fitted with a special aerosol probe that shot particles 1.0 to 2.5 microns in diameter into the face of the mannequin. The average results of the protective rate were found to be:

  • Dust Mask: 6.1%
  • Surgical Mask: 33.3%
  • N95 Respirator: 90-95%
  • KN95 Respirator: 90-95

If there was not a full 95% efficiency, the researchers found that the problem may rest with the fit of the mask rather than the material that made up the mask itself. This gives credence to the need for proper PPE training and guidance on how individuals should wear the mask they choose to use.

The proper use and wear of face masks have proven to be a successful tool for the mitigation and prevention of common viruses and bacteria. The effectiveness of the masks on the mitigation efforts against COVID-19 is still under review, but healthcare leaders are encouraging individuals to exercise caution and take advantage of the protective measures they have at hand.