N95 or Surgical Masks: Which One is Right for Me?

In many parts of the world, particularly in Asia, it has long been a common practice to wear a face-mask out in public.  People don’t ordinarily wear them when they’re healthy; rather, they wear them when they have a cold, a cough, or allergies to make sure they’re not infecting other people.  It’s a wonderful public courtesy that we here in the U.S. could learn from as we all try to go about what remains of our daily business, while striving not to endanger anyone else.  

Now that scientists are saying that perhaps 25% or more of coronavirus patients are asymptomatic, the best course of action is to assume that we have it and our primary responsibility is not to pass it on.  So it makes sense that the CDC is weighing whether to recommend the use of masks in public.  But we are also hearing of the terrible shortage of masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) affecting nurses, doctors, and other essential workers.  Let’s take a look at the two main kinds of masks, the N95 and the regular surgical mask, along with some other alternatives, so that you can make an informed decision for yourself and your family.

First up, the N95: frontline protection for those dealing with sick people.

N95 Mask

According to the CDC’s excellent infographic, the purpose of the N95 is to filter out 95% of large droplets (such as those expelled in a sneeze or cough) and small particle aerosols (such as the normal air we all breathe out).  The N95 mask, also called an N95 respirator, is meant for medical personnel treating sick patients, and it is recommended that they change masks after every patient. This mask forms a tight seal to the face, so you’ll need to shave off any facial hair to use one.  They are also designed for adult use and will not fit most children. In addition, the FDA notes that N95s can make breathing difficult (I can attest to that, having used one when I was painting my house a few years ago in 95° weather – simpler times) and should be used cautiously by people with existing breathing problems.

Next, the regular surgical mask: a way for sick or asymptomatic people to prevent passing germs to others

Surgical Mask

Surgical masks protect the wearer against large splashes and droplets, but do not provide much protection against small aerosol particles.  The main reason to wear a surgical mask is that it DOES offer a measure of protection for those around you, by catching most of the droplets and aerosols that you exhale.  It does not form a tight seal to the face and is more comfortable to wear than an N95 (which is also why it doesn’t offer as much protection). Washing a surgical mask will destroy its protective layers, particularly the outer, water-resistant layer.  However, it’s believed that COVID-19 can’t live on a mask longer than 72 hours, so if you must re-use, let the mask breathe in a sunny, ventilated spot (UV light kills most germs eventually) for at least 3 days.  

At this point, it’s pretty clear that most N95 masks should be going to hospitals, and that surgical masks are a good way to prevent general spread in public.  There has also been interest in making DIY cloth masks, which are considered to be about ⅓ as effective as a surgical mask but better than nothing, and must be washed and dried at very high heat (133° F or higher).  Whatever you choose to protect yourself, your family, and your community, remember we’re in this together. Wash your hands, don’t touch your face even with a mask on, and be considerate of everyone around you.  


Wishing you and your family the best health from all of us at Blue Echo Care!