Janelle Zimmerman - Registered Nurse, Health Coach, Healthcare Writer
2020 was supposed to be the Year of Perfect Vision. As it turns out, it might better be known as the Year of the Mask. Love them or hate them, masks are part of our daily reality for this time.
As the masking options have proliferated in the marketplace, it can be confusing to decide which is the best for the situation. So, we decided to put together this guide to three most common types of professional-grade masks. (We excluded fabric/cloth masks, because while they are better than no masks the quality is uneven, and some may be ineffective.)These three types of masks provide varying levels of protection and comfort.
3-Ply Face Mask
Cheapest, lightest, and simplest, the 3-Ply Face Mask is the type commonly used in healthcare for basic protection. The 3-ply design has a nose bridge wire for enhanced comfort and protection, making it possible to mold the mask to your nose to decrease airflow around the mask. This style is perfect for offering to employees and customers at a cost-effective price point.
KN95 Respirator Mask
Offering 95+% filtration efficiency (0.075 ± 0.020 micrometer particles) as demonstrated by CDC tests, the KN95 is a blend of comfort and function. The KN95 provides a closer fit and better filtration than the 3-ply but is more comfortable for most people than the N95. The fabric ear loops are staple free for increased comfort, especially in hot or humid environments. The front of the sits away from mouth for easier, more comfortable breathing and speaking. A pliable metal nose clip allows easy adjustment for fit and proper seal.
A flat fold design allows easy storage. These masks have also been tested by 3M with resulting showing 95+% filtration efficiency, offering significantly better protection from airborne contaminants than cloth masks or 3-ply. Some KN95 brands have even achieved filtration efficiency as high as 99.7% in laboratory tests. According to CDC guidelines, with proper storage, this type of mask is reusable until soiled.
N95 Respirator Mask
This year, we have all become aware that the N95 is “the” mask to wear for protection in situations of prolonged direct exposure to airborne contaminants. This type is hard, molded, with multiple layers of material. To be effective, N95s must be professionally fitted to ensure a tight fit without leaks.
While the supply of N95s has increased since the severe shortage noted in the spring of 2020, it may still be best to leave this type for the frontline medical professionals who need the maximum available protection.
In summary, all these types of masks can help us in our fight against COVID-19. All things considered, KN95 is an excellent every day protective mask given the combination of quality filtration fabric, adjustable nose wire, face hugging seal, and dome shape for speaking/breathing comfort.
Regardless which option you choose, proper fit is essential. Adjust the nose bridge, make sure the edges are snug against your face, and that there are no substantial leaks. You should feel some level of resistance when breathing but not such that it is difficult to breath. Dependent on individual tolerance, you may wish to try various types of masks to see which will work best for you to achieve the best fit.