A doctor schools us on the distinction in standard and their effectiveness against the novel coronavirus.
woman putting on N95 face mask
Credit: SDI Productions / Getty Images

With all the different respirator masks currently available on the market, separating the superior from the so-so can be tricky. "A respirator looks like a mask, and when you breathe through it, it will filter out tiny particles like bacteria and viruses," explains Dr. Lewis Kohl, Senior Medical Director and Chief Safety Officer at CareMount Medical.

And while Dr. Kohl says that, for the average person, surgical masks, cloth masks, and bandanas are just as effective against the spread of coronavirus as N95 and KN95 respirators, he adds that what's most important is that a respirator fits properly. "If a respirator doesn't have a good seal, you should wear a regular cloth mask," he advises. "There are several videos on YouTube demonstrating how to properly put on a respirator, test the seal and take it off. N95s are hard to breathe through. If it's easy to breathe, a proper seal over your mouth and nose has not been achieved."

Curious what distinguishes N95 from KN95 respirators, and which one is more effective? We asked Dr. Kohl to break down the differences and here's what he had to share.

What is a N95 respirator mask?

According to Dr. Kohl, N95 is the certification standard used in the United States to describe a tight-fitting respirator that filters out at least 95 percent of particles (down to 0.3 microns). "The N95 respirator must cover the nose and mouth. It might feel like breathing through a straw, and you can overheat pretty quickly, but this standard has been shown to be extremely effective in protecting healthcare workers who are in very close contact with contagious patients."

What is a KN95 respirator mask?

Dr. Kohl says that there are a number of respirators around the world that meet the same design standard as N95s, and in China, they are certified as KN95s. "These respirators are essentially the same. The KN95 filters out at least 95 percent of particles down to 0.3 microns," he explains. "To be effective, these respirators also must create a seal around the face and nose when worn."

Is one more effective than the other?

Dr. Kohl says there is no advantage of using one type of respirator (N95 or KN95) over another, as long as it is properly made and certified, and meets U.S. testing standards. "The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) certifies all legitimate N95s available for sale in the United States," he says. "NIOSH has also tested many non-U.S. certified respirators, like KN95s, to see if they truly meet the standard."

How can you spot a fake.

Unfortunately, Dr. Kohl says that the coronavirus pandemic has led to a rise in counterfeit N95 and KN95 respirator masks, especially online. "True N95s will have NIOSH written in block letters on the respirator, along with testing and certification numbers, as well as the designation, N95," he explains. If you're having trouble determining the authenticity of your respirator, he says that NIOSH has a special page on their website that can help identify whether or not it's a knockoff.

Maintenance matters.

Whether you're wearing a certified N95 or KN95 respirator, Dr. Kohl says the way you handle it is key to its efficiency. "Try not to touch the outside of the respirator, and always put the respirator on and take it off with clean hands," he advises. "Unless your N95 gets dirty, damaged, or is exposed to highly infectious material (like working in a COVID ICU), you can comfortably re-use an N95 for weeks; however, eventually the filtering material will deteriorate, so it's not recommended to wear it for more than a month or so."


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