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The COVID-19 pandemic has made face masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) necessities in our daily lives. Designations like N95 and KN95 are now household terms, but many people aren't certain how face mask standards are rated. Regular face masks and N95 respirator masks are both great for protection, but is one more effective than the other?
Regular face masks are useful in standard medical situations, treatment practices, and for overall germ protection. They're excellent at blocking bodily fluids, which can contain viruses and bacteria, as well as protecting the nose and mouth from larger particulates. These include saliva and respiratory emissions, making a regular face mask an effective option for protection against COVID-19 during your everyday activities. Most face masks are meant for one-time use, but others are designed to be reusable.
Respirator masks, like the N95 Respirator Mask and the related KN95 Respirator Mask, are very similar to face masks in shape, but are more capable of protecting against small, contaminated airborne particulates. The construction of an N95 Respirator Mask is designed to fit the mask closely to the face, eliminating the gap that regular face masks can have. This makes them ideal for healthcare settings in which there is significant risk of transmission; they're also common in industrial settings where inhaling dangerous materials is a risk.
N95 respirator masks are specifically labeled as such and are approved for use by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). You may be wondering about the difference between N95 and KN95 masks: KN95 is the regulatory standard for filtering facepiece respirators (FFR) certified in China. The quality of these masks is comparable to N95 masks, with a similar 95% filter performance efficiency rating. For more information on mask ratings, American conglomerate 3M, whose N95 masks and other PPE products you may be familiar with, has provided this comparison between multiple respirator classes (PDF file).