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This is Part Two of a set of posts called ‘Wearing a Face Mask During a Pandemic’.

Masks designed to keep the wearer safe from the virus as well as to prevent virus spread:

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Frontline medical work during the Covid pandemic – The Times

It has to be said, that although we all want to keep our community safe and not spread the virus among it, most people researching face masks are looking for ways to keep themselves safe from the virus as well, because they don’t want to rely entirely upon everyone else wearing a mask (or wearing a mask effectively) to help protect them.

Many will look at the following masks for the best safety options, but as you will see, they will be unobtainable for most of the public and they have their drawbacks too:

Respirator Masks Worn in Hospitals:

Respirator Masks are primarily for medical staff working in hospitals, in close contact with patients who have infectious diseases, but are now being recommended for frontine social care workers also:

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FFP2 and FFP3 Medical Respirators

The FFP3 respirator (Europe and UK) (and sometimes the FFP2 Respirator), and the N95, N99, and N100 respirators (US) should be worn by doctors, nurses and anyone working in close contact with a Covid-19 patient.

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N95 and N99 Medical Respirators

These masks are designed to filter out extremely tiny microscopic particles (size 0.3 Microns) of virus as follows:

  • A tight-fitting FFP2 (Europe and UK) mask should filter out around 94% of virus particles.
  • A tight-fitting FFP3 (Europe and UK) mask should filter out 99%+ of virus particles.
  • A tight-fitting N95 (US) mask should filter out at least 95% of virus particles.
  • A tight-fitting N99 (US) mask should filter out 99% of virus particles.
  • A tight-fitting N100 (US) mask should filter out 99.7% of virus particles.
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N100 Medical Respirator Mask

Other countries have similar categories for medical masks. For instance, the Chinese system is KN95 (Filters out up to 95% of 0.3 Microns particles) and above.

Because these top quality protection masks work on the basis of keeping microscopic virus particles out, they need a tight seal with the face. So all of the above respirator masks must be chosen to fit the person wearing them and medical staff should be measured regularly to ensure they continue to have the best fit.

The disadvantage to this is that these masks can be pretty uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time.

Even though the majority of these masks have valves to help with breathing, some medical staff still find the masks are sealed in so tight that it makes their breathing laboured, they feel ‘headachey’, and some wearers experience a strong feeling of claustrophobia.

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‘Marks for Heroes’ Sore marks left by medical respirators – Xinhua Net

And then there are the sore marks which a tight medical respirator leaves on the face. These masks are not at all comfortable.

As with surgical masks, medical respirator masks are also disposable (although, with the acute shortage of top quality respirator masks, some hospitals are recommending that their staff clean and sterilise these masks to be worn at least twice).

Can the general public wear medical level respirator masks?

Because there is a worldwide shortage of medical level respirator masks, it is only fair that front line medical and social care staff have access to them before the general public.

Plus, these masks are very expensive for a member of the public to buy. For example you can purchase a FFP3 respirator mask on eBay, but a good quality (and in date) one will cost you around £35-50 minimum.

And remember that these masks are meant to be worn once, so planning to wear a good quality respirator mask regularly would be a very expensive exercise.

However, some people do buy single FFP3 masks for emergency use (an urgent hospital visit to see a relative, for example).

All that being said, you can purchase some relatively inexpensive Chinese-made KN95 disposable masks on eBay, Amazon, etc:

KN95 Masks from China:

Like the medical respirator masks above, KN95 face masks are also disposable. They are usually almost circular in shape, with a snug fit all around and a centre seam pointing outwards (giving a cone shape). This gives the wearer lots of inside space for their mouth and nose and, with the help of an adjustable nose bar, they stay in place well, even when the wearer is talking.

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KN95 Mask, showing the cone shape

As these masks are made mainly in China, they are made to Chinese specifications.

They do not fit UK or US criteria for protection (for instance, KN95 masks often have elastic ear loops, while N95 and FFP3 masks will usually have adjustable ties to enable a better fit), but good ones will adhere to Chinese safety specifications, which in these times of PPE shortages, many will find acceptable.

At the time of typing, these masks retail at around £2-£4 per mask without a respirator valve, and around £8 to £10 per mask with a respirator valve.

They vary in design and quality and I’m afraid it usually relies upon paying your money and taking a chance. Whether that is worth it is up to you.

Some KN95 masks are not well made. Most of them are mass-produced. But nevertheless, some are excellent for the job required. The good ones will fit well, are comfortable to wear, and probably provide a very reasonable level of protection (as reasonable as you can get with a mask which is not specifically measured to fit you).

KN95 masks also vary between 3 ply and 5 ply – These masks have layers of material – to block, to filter and for comfort. 4 and 5 ply masks will have extra filter layers.

Some also have respirator valves like the European, UK and US respirator masks (the valves should expel moist air without letting particles in – this helps prevent the inner mask getting wet from your breath).

As an aside, valves on facemasks worn by the public are frowned upon by some US sources and may even eventually be banned for general use. This is because it is thought that expelling air from inside a mask means also expelling particles of virus into the surrounding atmosphere- and this is of course the opposite result to that required when asking the public to wear masks (see Note 1).

But most KN95 masks to purchase online do not have respirator valves. They are, however, reasonably light to wear, have room inside to breath, and most people would have no trouble wearing them without a break for up to 4 hours if required (for a hospital visit, a long trip to the shops, for part of the working day in a busy office, etc).

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A popular KN95 face mask design

As someone who has purchased and worn KN95 masks on a couple of occasions, I personally would say they are worth the outlay when you want a light, comfortable, reasonably reliable mask to wear in a crowded space to give you a good measure of protection as well as to protect others.

But don’t rely on KN95 masks entirely. They are not UK or US medical grade. Social distancing is vital whenever possible when wearing a KN95 mask, as is frequently washing your hands.

In any case, even if you choose to buy some KN95 masks on eBay or elsewhere, you will probably be looking for other masks to top up the number of masks you may need to wear every day, especially as we could be wearing face masks more and more over the following months.

And many of you will be looking for the money-saving value of a mask which you can safely wear, wash, and wear again.

These will be discussed in the next post.

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Note 1: Why your N95 mask could endanger others: https://www.sfgate.com/living-in-sf/article/Why-your-N95-mask-could-endanger-others-15246318.php