The difference between an N95 mask and a surgical mask

The difference between an N95 mask and a surgical mask

What is an N95 mask?
N95 respirators, more commonly known as N95 masks, are protective masks that filters out harmful airborne particles and prevent us from breathing them in.

N95 masks protect us from both small and large particles found in the air around us; the ‘95’ in N95 tells us that it is at least 95% efficient in filtering out harmful airborne particles.

How does an N95 mask work?
An N95 mask acts as a barrier between you and the surrounding environment to protect you against hazardous fine particles and viruses suspended in the air.

However, an N95 mask must be in the right size for you to achieve well-sealed protection against airborne pollutants. A mask that is too big will result in gaps, leaving us vulnerable against fine particles in the air which are hazardous for our health.

To check if the mask achieves a good seal, place your hands over the surface of the mask and blow out to check for any leaks. If you feel the air leaking from the sides of the mask, it means that it has not achieved a perfect seal.

What is a surgical mask?
Surgical masks, usually made of cloth or paper, are used to maintain hygiene in certain environments, such as in a sterile operating theatre.

Surgical masks are effective against large particles such as bacteria and bodily fluids, but are ineffective against fine particles like PM2.5 and dust. As such, surgical masks are not meant to protect us during haze periods since tiny airborne particles such as PM2.5 can easily bypass the filter material.

N95 mask vs. surgical mask: when to use what?
Since N95 masks and surgical masks serve different purposes, it is important for us to know which mask is effective in protecting us during a specific situation. The table below summarises the differences between N95 masks and surgical masks to give you a better idea of their function and intended use.

References:
- Health Sciences Authority: https://www.hsa.gov.sg/content/dam/HSA/HPRG/Consumer_Information/Public%20Advisories/Influenza_A_H1N1_information/consumer_advisories/HSAConsumerGuide-MakingInformedDecisionsWhenBuyingMasks_Respirators-FINAL-Aug09.pdf

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