Are N95 Masks Safer Than Cloth Masks to Prevent Spreading the Coronavirus?

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If we weren’t sure before, the coronavirus pandemic certainly made it clear that respiratory diseases like COVID-19 can spread easily from one person to the next. This is especially true when groups of people gather in public places, but even smaller settings when it's not possible to maintain at least 6 feet of space between people are dangerous.

Equipping yourself with the proper mask and knowing how and when to use it can help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus and other respiratory diseases. Cloth masks are generally recommended for public use, while N95 masks are crucial for health care workers and others on the front lines who are constantly exposed. Here’s what you need to know to protect yourself and others by wearing the appropriate mask.

What Is an N95 Mask?

An N95 mask is much more sophisticated and protective than your average cloth mask. Health care providers must be trained properly and pass a test to ensure they know how to achieve a proper seal before using the mask in a health care setting. The N95 is highly effective at removing up to 95% of even the smallest particles from the air you breathe — as long as it is sealed correctly.

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Additionally, some N95s are equipped with vents to make it easier to breathe when wearing them. However, those vents release unfiltered air back into the room every time the wearer exhales, which is why that type of N95 mask has been banned in some places, including for use at the Mayo Clinic. Those with chronic lung or cardiac illnesses or those who might not be able to remove their N95 masks for some reason may be unable to wear this type of mask.

What's the Difference Between N95 and Cloth Masks?

As of August 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended the general public wear simple cloth masks. When worn correctly, cloth face coverings can prevent respiratory droplets from spreading through the air when someone is coughing, sneezing or talking. Cloth face masks should be worn over the face and mouth to contain respiratory droplets. Using cloth masks is essential when it's not possible to stay a safe distance away from others. Respiratory diseases like COVID-19 spread primarily within a range of 6 feet.

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Unfortunately, it’s still possible to transmit COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases to others even when wearing a face mask. For that reason, the CDC recommends that everyone, including health care workers and the general public, continue to follow good hygiene practices to reduce the spread of the virus further. Aside from avoiding close contact whenever possible, you should refrain from touching your eyes, mouth and nose if your hands aren't clean. You should also wash your hands as often as possible and routinely clean and disinfect surfaces.

Should the General Public Be Wearing N95 Respirator Masks?

In accordance with the CDC, the FDA also doesn’t recommend N95 respirator masks for the general public. It’s not because N95s aren't effective; it’s because they are a critical supply for health care workers and must be reserved for those in the medical field and first responders.

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N95 masks are sometimes referred to as surgical masks, but there are some notable differences between these two types of face coverings. Unlike an N95 respirator mask, a surgical mask fits looser and doesn’t seal to the face. N95 masks have edges that are specifically designed to form a seal around the nose and mouth, while surgical masks do not.

What Are Some Other Types of Masks?

Surgical masks are a popular alternative to cloth masks in the battle against the coronavirus. Like their cloth counterparts, surgical masks work by protecting others from saliva and respiratory droplets that are expelled when you talk, cough or sneeze. Surgical masks filter large particles from the air, but the FDA hasn’t specifically approved any types of surgical masks for protection against COVID-19. Nonetheless, they undoubtedly offer some degree of protection.

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The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) has suggested that face shields may be more effective than homemade cloth masks and other types of masks, mainly because they cover more of your face. Additionally, your eyes are exposed when wearing most masks, which can create a path for the virus to enter through the mucus membranes. While these arguments are partially true, the openings around the edges of the face are much more open, potentially allowing greater exposure to the virus. At the very least, a face shield can be cleaned and reused, whereas some masks (especially N95s) are designed for single use only.