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Leaving home means wearing a face mask, but which type is right for you?

Justin Ng

Digital Content Director, Kuala Lumpur

Staying home and reducing physical interactions offer the best forms of protection against potential Covid-19 infection. But if you must leave for essentials, do so with care and wear the right type of face masks. 

A face mask is intended to prevent respiratory droplets from escaping or leaking in from outside. If you wear only a face shield sans a mask, it really defeats the purpose. Wearing the mask beneath your nose? Ditto.

How much protection do you gain from wearing a disposable surgical face mask?

The ubiquitous surgical mask comes in an assortment of colours, but not all are created equal. A three-ply surgical mask offers at least 80% protection bacteria filtration efficiency. Made of polypropylene fabric, the outer layer repels water, blood and fluid resistance, alongside an inner layer that prevents moisture absorption. The middle non-woven melt-blown layer protects against infiltration of bacteria and germs. 

Surgical face masks
Disposable surgical face masks (Photo: Unsplash/Mika Baumeister)

A four-ply surgical mask performs all the above. With an additional middle layer of activated carbon against gases and organic vapours or any anti-viral filter, however, it raises the bacterial and particle filtration efficiency up to 99%.  

How you wear a face mask or it fits the contour of your face also determines its efficiency. It should have a built-in nose wire to make for a snug fit against the bridge of your nose. To ensure the mask leaves no gap around both sides of your face, you can tie a knot on the ear loops to join the edges of the face mask for a tighter fit. You might also want to consider trimming your facial hair in order to achieve a better fit.  

A surgical face mask is intended to be worn once and must be disposed of safely afterwards. If it is soiled, damaged or you find it difficult to breathe in, it is time to change a new one. 

Is an N95 face mask necessary?

Unlike a typical surgical face mask, an N95 respirator is designed to achieve a close fit and therefore increasing the efficiency against particles. That said, facial hair might loosen the sealing area around the respirator, slackening its filtration ability. It is called N95 precisely because it blocks at least 95% of large and small airborne particles. It should also be discarded after each use, or when it is contaminated and unable to form a tight seal.  

KN95 face mask
KN95 is considered the Chinese equivalent to the American N95 standard

Apart from mechanical filtering, an N95 respirator also relies on electrostatic filtering in which stationary electric charges attract and ensnare particles. It is unequivocal that it offers enhanced protection compared to the typical surgical face mask. At critical times like this, it is important that front-liners such as medical personnel have adequate supply before the public. 

There is an even higher grade than N95.

As indicated by its name, N99 has the uncanny ability to block 99% of aerosol particles. The N99 respirator can be single use or washable, allowing repeated usage up to a prescribed number of times. 

N100 respirator
N100 respirator produced by 3M (Photo: 3M)

There is more. N100 is designed to help provide reliable respiratory protection of at least 99.97% filtration efficiency. It is pretty much a full-scale respirator fitted with an attachable cartridges offering a higher quality of filtered air.

Can I still use a fashion or cloth mask?

A cloth mask can be made from a variety of materials and fabrics. It is vital to ascertain that it is dense and well made. If you hold it against the light and can perceive the passing ray, the face mask won’t offer you sufficient protection. You may add a PM2.5 filter to enhance its efficiency, albeit it still won’t be considered medical grade. 

Double face masks
Dr Anthony Fauci showing the correct way of double masking (Photo: Twitter/San Francisco Department of Emergency Management)

However, you may treat the fashion or cloth mask as a secondary layer of protection upon a disposable surgical mask, as recommended by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). You shouldn’t be wearing two surgical masks concurrently or a cloth mask upon an N95 respirator.

Should I use a face mask with a valve filter?

A ventilation valve helps those with breathing difficulty to better cope while wearing a face mask. It reduces heat and humidity building up, so you can breathe easier. A valve will filter the air you inhale, but it doesn’t filter the air you exhale. This potentially endangers those around you. It holds true even for the supposed valve-equipped N95 face mask.

Valve-fitted face mask
A valve-fitted face mask will protect you but not necessarily those around you (Photo: Unsplash/Utopia By Cho)

So choose wisely and ones that offer you the best protection but also comfort.

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