Different Types of Protective Masks

With flu season starting soon (on top of COVID-19) we wanted to take a look at the different types of protective face masks and when to use them. Remember that face masks are not just for your protection—they are for the protection of everyone.

Many people think that the ‘best’ type of mask to use is the one that filters out the most particles. This is not always true. Many situations don’t require a NIOSH-certified N95 mask. Higher-grade masks should be reserved for high-risk situations due to ongoing mask shortages. Different situations call for different masks.

Cloth Face Masks

Description: Cotton or synthetic fabric face masks. Homemade or store-bought.

Filtration: None. Filtration levels vary from mask to mask as most are made by different manufacturers and with no official standards. Cloth masks may stop large visible particles from coughs and sneezes from escaping, helping to slow the spread of various illnesses.

A study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in June 2020 showed that layered cotton masks were more effective than synthetic fabrics when it comes to slowing the spread of COVID-19.

When to use: Whenever you are around other people and can’t social distance. At this point, it is common courtesy to wear a mask in public. Wearing a cloth mask is more to prevent the user from spreading the bulk of a sneeze or cough and not protecting from all harmful particles. If you are in a situation where you feel you need a better mask you should refrain from going to that place until you have one.

Surgical Masks (3-ply) AKA Protective Face Masks

Description: A loose-fitting, disposable mask manufactured in different thicknesses. Usually has ties or elastic ear loops. These are usually the masks you see doctors and nurses wearing during basic surgical procedures, or what your dentist wears during your normal dental checkup.

Filtration: Depends on the level. Legitimate surgical masks will be rated level 1, 2, or 3 by the ASTM. The level of the mask designates the environment the mask should be used in. Surgical masks are designed to protect your nose and mouth from bodily fluids and harmful particulate matter.

When to use: In public situations that require getting relatively close to other people. A surgical mask should be used if you work in close quarters with others. Going to heavily trafficked places like beauty salons, restaurants, or gyms also warrant the use of a surgical mask.

KN95 Face Masks

Description: Masks manufactured to Chinese 95% filtration standards. KN95 masks are supposed to filter the same level of particles as N95 (US certification) masks. However, due to the huge facemask demand cause by the COVID-19 pandemic, many substandard and counterfeit KN95 masks have flooded the US market. China has a governing body like our FDA/NIOSH that holds masks to standards similar to the FDA. That is why the FDA has allowed them into our country.

Filtration: 95% of particulate matter. This applies if the KN95 mask is legitimate. Many counterfeit masks are currently floating around which, in some cases, could be less effective than a regular cloth mask. Due to the levels of counterfeit KN95 masks, it is currently recommended to only buy NIOSH-certified N95 masks for extremely high-risk environments (hospitals, doctors offices, nursing homes etc).

Section 9 of this article shows how to spot counterfeit KN95 masks.

When to use: Visiting any healthcare locations (doctor’s office, hospital, nursing homes). Again, if you have KN95 masks on hand please make sure they are real! If you wear a fake KN95 mask into a high-risk situation you could be endangering yourself or others.

N95 Face Masks

Description: Masks manufactured to US 95% filtration standards. N95 masks are designed to filter most particles while breathing.

Filtration: NIOSH-certified N95 masks will filter 95% of all particles. Most harmful airborne particles (viral and otherwise) will be stopped by the filter.

When to use: Visits to the doctor or hospital. N95 masks should be reserved for situations that have a high risk of encountering hazardous airborne particles. N95 masks are still in relatively short supply and healthcare workers need them every day. If everyone wore N95 masks all the time there would be none left for our doctors, nurses, and emergency responders!

N99 Face Masks

Description: Respirator-style mask that requires a filter to be worn properly.

Filtration: Depends on the filter. Make sure to look at any filtration certifications to make sure they are legitimate.

When to use: When you are sanding away lead paint. N99 masks should not be used for general public safety. These masks are difficult to breathe in and you can’t take breathing breaks in public. N99 masks are typically used in industrial occupations and are not recommended for everyday use.

Many N99 masks also have breathing valves or micro-ventilators to make breathing easier. Using these in public spaces could expose those around you to any virus you are carrying.


Mask Letter and Numbers: What do They Mean?

You may have noticed some protective masks have numbers (N95, KN95). The packaging on these masks many times doesn’t specify what the numbers and letters mean. Here’s a quick rundown of what protective mask letters and numbers mean.

  • N – if the letter N is in a mask type, it means the mask is non-resistant to oil-based particles
  • R – if the letter R is in a mask type, it means the mask is resistant to oil-based particles
  • P – if the letter P is in a mask type, it means the mask is oil-proof
  • 95 – 95% of all particles are filtered
  • 99 – 99% of all particles are filtered
  • 100 – 99.97% of all particles are filtered (requires HE- or HEPA-quality filters)
  • Level 1 – Rated by the ASTM as a low barrier protection mask. Recommended to use for short periods in areas that don’t involve aerosols, sprays, or fluids.
  • Level 2 – Rated by the ASTM as a moderate barrier protection mask. Recommended to use in areas with moderate levels of aerosols, sprays, or fluids.
  • Level 3 – Rated by the ASTM as a maximum barrier protection mask. Recommended to use in areas with heavy levels of aerosols, sprays, or fluids.

Other common phrases found on masks:

  • NIOSH – National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Masks and respirators can be certified by NIOSH to protect from potentially dangerous particles. Legitimate N95 masks will be NIOSH certified.

Masks at Oswald’s

We currently offer cloth masks, 3-ply surgical masks, and N95 masks. We have a great selection online and even more available in-store. If you have any questions regarding protective face masks going into flu season, please send us an email or give us a call. We’d love to hear from you!

Further Reading

Written by Hannah, PharmD

Hannah started working for Oswald’s Pharmacy in 2018. Hannah is a pharmacist focused on service and pharmacy innovation.