Best Coronavirus Face Masks: N95 vs Surgical vs Cloth

Contrary to popular belief, coronavirus is not a single disease. The term coronavirus refers to a large family of viruses that cause a wide range of symptoms from mild to severe. The disease that everyone’s talking about today comes from the family of viruses that also caused SARS and MERS.

The novel coronavirus, named COVID-19, was unknown until the outbreak in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. From there, COVID-19 has reached other countries, including South Korea, Italy, the United States, the United Kingdom, Iran, Germany, Singapore, Hong Kong, France, Croatia, among others.

With the increased prevalence of COVID-19 and no signs of its slowing down, the interest in masks has soared significantly. Chances are you are interested in coronavirus masks as well and wonder how or whether they work. In this post, you will get the answers. Scroll down to learn more about face masks that people use to protect themselves, their effectiveness, and more.

Symptoms and causes of COVID-19

Symptoms of COVID-19 resemble those of common cold and flu. In other words, some of the most common signs and symptoms of this disease are dry cough, fever, tiredness, runny nose, sore throat, and headache. Fever tends to last for a couple of days. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that some patients may have aches and pains, nasal congestion, and diarrhea. Symptoms of the disease are mild at first and begin gradually.

When it comes to COVID-19, it is important to mention that some people do not experience symptoms, but they can transmit the disease to someone else. The disease is transmitted from one person to another through small droplets from the nose or mouth which can spread when an infected individual coughs, sneezes or exhales.

The exact cause of novel coronavirus is still a subject of many studies and has not been officially confirmed by WHO. The most likely cause of the disease is the bats, but they aren’t sold in the animal market at Wuhan where the disease had started. It is believed disease spread from bats to some other animals and after it had evolved it jumped to humans.

Who is at risk of COVID-19?

The risk of catching COVID-19 depends on where you live or whether you (or someone you’re in contact with) have traveled recently. Visiting countries with confirmed cases of novel coronavirus put you at a greater risk of developing the disease just as close contact with persons who traveled to those places.

It is important to mention that most cases of COVID-19 do not result in death. The risk of severe symptoms and complication increases in elderly patients and persons with pre-existing medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension (high blood pressure).

Coronavirus masks

The COVID-19 caused mass hysteria across the globe. In order to protect themselves from the disease, people have started buying face masks which led to shortages and increased prices. Masks are seen as the best route to disease prevention. Two types of masks are available: surgical masks and N95 respirators.

Surgical masks

Surgical masks are loose-fitting and disposable masks specifically created to form a physical barrier between the wearer’s mouth and nose and potential contaminants in their immediate environment. Being disposable, surgical masks should only be worn once and although they are effective in blocking splashes and large-particle droplets, these masks do not filter small particles transmitted by sneezes, coughs, and exhales. Due to the fact, surgical masks are loose-fitting, they are unable to provide complete protection as tiny droplets can still reach the nose or mouth through the loose corners.

Follow these guidelines if using a surgical mask:

  • Wash hands with soap and water or clean them with hand sanitizer
  • Inspect the mask for tears and holes
  • Place the mask to your face making sure the colored side is outwards the metal strip (or stiff edge) is on the top side
  • Pinch the metal strip or stiff edge so it can mold to shape of the nose
  • Pull down the bottom of the mask to cover mouth and chin

After use, take off the mask carefully and toss it in trashcan immediately making sure it doesn’t touch your clothes or other surfaces. Wash your hands again.

N95 respirators

The N95 respirator is a respiratory protective device that provides a close facial fit and the efficient filtration of airborne particles. These respirators got their name because they are able to filter out at least 95% of very small (0.3 microns) particles. In fact, N95 respirators can filter out bacteria and viruses which is why they have become a popular tool for protection against coronavirus. Unlike loose-fitting surgical masks, tight-fitted N95 respirators can be more effective but it is important to wear them properly. When not work adequately, they can’t do their job. That said, N95 respirators aren’t for everyone. For instance, they are not suitable for children, men with facial hair, and for people with medical conditions that may be worsened by breathing through a respirator. To check for proper fit, you need to put on the respirator and adjust the straps so that N95 fits tightly but comfortably to the face.

In the United States, the FDA has approved certain N95 respirators for use by the general public. These are:

  • 3MTM Particulate Respirator 8670F – flat-fold face mask with convenient portability and individual packaging. The mask is supposed to cover the nose and mouth and reduce exposure to airborne germs. In addition to soft inner materials, this N95 mask also comes with an adjustable nose clip to decrease eyewear fogging and provides better seal and fit. A secure fit is also ensured with two-strap design.

Before putting on this respirator make sure to wash hands with soap and water or clean them alcohol-based sanitizer (you should do this when putting on any mask). Pull top part (with foam) up and bottom part down in order to unfold the respirator. Just like with surgical masks, inspect the respirator for holes, tears, and any other sign of damage. Place the respirator against the face with the bottom under the chin. Nose foam should be direct across the bridge of your nose. Proceed to pull the elastic band over the head and place it high at the top back of your head. Pull the bottom elastic band over the head and place it around the neck right below the ears. Bend the metal nose strip with both hands to ensure a tight fit. Seal the respirator against nose and face by sliding fingers down both sides of the metal nose strip. Cover the middle panel completely with one or both hands. Breathe sharply or exhale; if you can feel air blowing on face or eyes, the respirator needs to be readjusted. When it fits properly, you don’t feel air blowing on face or eyes

  • 3MTM Particulate Respirator 8612F – disposable respirator that decreases exposure to pathogenic biological airborne particulates during public health medical emergencies. The process of putting on the mask is the same as in the above-described 8670F
  • Pasture Tm F550G Respirator – N95 respirator that belongs in the group of “duckbill” respirators made by the Pasture. The respirator consists of five layers of non-woven fiber-containing filter web in the middle. The single-use respirator doesn’t require a fit test and does not irritate the skin. It should cover the face from the upper part of the nose to below the chin. Follow the instructions mentioned above to put it on properly
  • Pasture Tm A520G Respirator – cone-shaped N95 respirator with Ezy-Breathe Technology. The mask comes in one universal size and is intended for single-use only. The respirator contains no skin irritants and doesn’t require a fit test.

The above-mentioned are the only N95 respirators that were approved by the FDA. They are not intended for occupation use. Some N95 respirators are only made for industrial and healthcare settings and are not meant to be used by the general public.

Surgical masks vs. N95: what’s better?

It would be difficult to pinpoint a clear winner here. The N95 respirators do provide better protection from viruses and other pathogens, they only work if you put them on properly. On the other hand, surgical masks tend to be quite loose and do not provide a lot of protection against tiny droplets. If you’re interested in buying a mask, then you may want to opt for an N95 respirator. But to be on the safe side, it’s always useful to consult a doctor who will advise you on this subject.

Best Coronavirus masks for the general public

A top medical-grade mask costs hundreds of dollars and is not intended for the general public. But any good quality mask can provide adequate protection. The downside is that there are currently very few masks available in stores, both online and in local retail stores. And usually the few stores that do sell masks only stock cloth masks, which are inferior and incomparable to the effectiveness of surgical and N95 masks.

Read our article on the best kids face mask to learn more about masks for children.

Who benefits the most from coronavirus masks?

The WHO states that healthy people do not need to wear a mask unless they are taking care of a person with suspected COVID-19 infection. People who benefit the most from face masks are healthcare providers and the persons who are already infected as they have lower chances of transmitting the disease to others. You may also want to wear a mask if you’re coughing or sneezing, or you live in an area with a lot of coronavirus cases. On the other hand, if you’re healthy and do not live in an outbreak zone you don’t really need a mask.

Bear in mind that face masks don’t mean anything unless you also practice proper hygiene habits.

Do you really need a mask?

As mentioned above, health organizations don’t urge people to wear a mask unless they are healthcare workers, infected, or care for an infected person. It is also said that you may want to wear a mask if you live in an outbreak zone. But technically speaking, the whole world is taken over by COVID-19 so if we go by that rule we all live in or near the hot zones. Therefore, wearing a mask is better, safer, and more practical than not wearing a mask at all. Many countries, especially some European nations such as Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bosnia, and Herzegovina even demand everyone to wear masks in public.

At the very beginning of the novel coronavirus outbreak which turned into the epidemic and later to the pandemic, it was widely suggested that masks aren’t necessary. Besides WHO, even CDC made clear it doesn’t recommend the routine use of respirators outside the workplace setting. It looks like they will change their mind. President Trump said on Monday, March 30, 2020, that we wouldn’t be wearing masks forever, but it could be for a short period of time. The idea of recommending broad use of face masks in the United States is under very active discussion in the White House. Just a few months ago, that wasn’t even up to discussion.

Even the CDC is reviewing data and the issue of whether people should wear face masks because these masks form an additional layer of protection for those who have to go out. While everyone strives to stay home as much as possible, for some people it’s more difficult to do and at some point, you do need to go out. It’s reassuring to know that CDC is trying to outweigh all the info they have about face masks, but this also says that they no longer believe that masks are not necessary, which was the case just a few months back. At this point, we do not know whether CDC will officially change their minds, but President Trump and healthcare experts say that wearing masks is not a bad idea after all.

This means that even the highest regulatory bodies are considering recommending face masks – so it’s a good idea to start wearing them now.

How to protect yourself from COVID-19

In order to decrease the risk of developing COVID-19 you need to:

  • Wash your hands regularly and thoroughly with soap and water
  • If you can’t wash your hands, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer
  • Cover your face with a suitable face mask when in public
  • Maintain at least 3ft (1m) distance between you and people around you – keep well clear of those who are sneezing or coughing
  • Avoid touching your mouth, eyes, and nose
  • Cover mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing, but instead of doing so in the palm of your hand, you should cough/sneeze in your elbow
  • Boost your immune system with zinc – our article on zinc and coronavirus explains more

When it comes to preventing coronavirus infection, regular hygiene is crucial. Wash hands more often and makes sure to avoid close contact with people who have the above-mentioned symptoms or those who have traveled to a country with identified cases of COVID-19.