A new coronavirus, designated 2019-nCoV or Covid-19, was first identified in Wuhan in China. As of January 28, 2020, approximately 6,061 cases worldwide have been confirmed. There have been 132 deaths so far.
Many people have been scrambling to get facial masks to protect themselves from this virus. But what masks actually work against the virus, and what’s the difference between types of masks?
A surgical mask, also known as a procedure mask, is intended to be worn by health professionals during surgery and during nursing to catch the bacteria shed in liquid droplets and aerosols from the wearer’s mouth and nose. They are not designed to protect the wearer from inhaling airborne bacteria or virus particles and are less effective than respirators, such as N95 or NIOSH masks, which provide better protection due to their material, shape and tight seal.
N95 Mask and N99 Mask
NIOSH air filtration rating refers to the publications of National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) of the US government pertaining to respirators and masks worn to filter contaminated air, regardless of cause.
The first part of the filter’s classification uses the letters N, R, or P to indicate the filter’s ability to function when exposed to petroleum.
“N” = not resistant to petroleum
“R” = somewhat resistant to petroleum
“P” = strongly resistant to petroleum
The second part lists the percentage of particles that the mask is certified to block (such as 95, 97 or 99 percent).
The most common is N95 which is recommended by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for most cases of air contamination. These filters are designed to seal tightly around mouth and nose and are made of material certified to block 95% of particles 0.3 μm or larger in diameter, roughly the size of a single virus and include PM2.5.
N99 mask filters are designed to seal tightly around mouth and nose and are made of material certified to block 99% of particles of a certain size. They filter more than N95 masks.
N95 Mask vs Surgical Mask
Plain surgical masks are standard for staff in hospital operating rooms, and often recommended to the public as part of avoiding seasonal flu. They do not carry a NIOSH rating. They are designed to filter out relatively large particles, such as sputum droplets and hair
Pitta Mask claims to be a face mask made from a new polyurethane material that’s highly porous allowing for easy breathing. At the same time, the layering construction cuts 99% of all pollen, colds (germs), and dust particles.
This is NOT recommended as defense against the virus.
A gas mask is a mask used to protect the wearer from inhaling airborne pollutants and toxic gases. The mask forms a sealed cover over the nose and mouth, but may also cover the eyes and other vulnerable soft tissues of the face. Most gas masks are also respirators, though the word gas mask is often used to refer to military equipment (e.g. field protective mask). The gas mask only protects the user from digesting, inhaling and contact through the eyes (many agents affect through eye contact). Most combined gas mask filters will last around 8 hours in a nuclear biological chemical (NBC) situation. Chemical specific filters can last up to 20 hours in a NBC situation.
The gas mask with exclusive oxygen tank is the safest defense against the virus, but also the most expensive and intrusive. You’re breathing filtered and (hopefully) clean air compared to outside air.
The N99 and even N95 masks may help with some defense.
The surgical masks offers minimal defense. The Pitta masks are unknown.
Disclaimer: As always, for medical advice please consult a medical professional.