COVID-19 has compelled us to adapt our lives and social interactions to better protect ourselves and the people around us. The fast spread of Omicron, on the scene since November, has muddied the waters when it comes to what mask to use, how to use them and common mistakes to avoid.
Types of masks
There are various types of masks and respirators available out there - N95, KN95, medical-grade and cloth masks - each of which differ and have varying purposes.
According to Health Canada, non-medical masks, medical-grade masks and respirators are all appropriate to be used in the community and public settings, but medical masks and respirators provide better protection.
Respirators such as N95 and KN95, however, do provide the best level of protection to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Respirators have better filtration, are tight-fitting across the nose and around the mouth compared to loose-fitting masks and, given the facial seal they create that prevents air leakage, are considered a form of respiratory protection that prevents the wearer from breathing in hazardous materials, including viruses and other germs. On the other hand, the primary purpose of masks is to act as a barrier to prevent the spread of the wearer’s respiratory droplets.
N95 respirators have the highest level of protection. To be certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), it must filter at least 95% of particles with a size of 0.3 microns. Warning: if an N95 does not bear the NIOSH letters, it is not a genuine or approved N95 mask.
KN95 respirators meet international standards and Health Canada notes that the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers them equivalent to N95s. Their filtration standards may vary but genuine KN95 masks filter at least 95% of particles, similarly to N95s.
Medical-grade masks, which are usually referred to as surgical or disposable procedure masks, provide less filtration, less of a seal around the wearer’s nose and mouth, and hence, less protection than N95 and KN95 respirators, but more than non-medical cloth masks. They primarily prevent the spread of the wearer’s respiratory droplets and proper fit is a key factor in their effectiveness.
If you are wearing non-medical cloth masks, it is recommended to upgrade to a medical-grade mask or respirator to improve the number of particles that are filtered.
Reusing the masks
Guidelines for reusing masks vary by mask type. Disposable masks such as respirators and medical-grade masks are typically for single use, but they may be reused until they are visibly dirty, damp, or damaged. It is important to note that reusing disposable respirators frequently loosens the elastic bands that hold them in place and decreases the fit and seal of the respirator.
Experts have found that an N95 mask can be used for up to 40 hours. If you do not wear it for long periods, one mask could last you a few days. You should not try to wash or sanitize an N95 mask. Since they are made to trap particles with high-tech filters, this could degrade them and make them less effective.
Non-medical cloth masks should be washed when visibly dirty or damp, and preferably regularly depending on usage.
Mistakes to avoid with masks
1. Not ensuring proper fit
A mask needs to comfortably cover the nose and mouth without gaps, fitted securely to the head, and shouldn’t require frequent adjustments.
2. Buying non-certified N95 masks
Certified N95 masks will always carry the NIOSH letters.
3. Purchasing masks or respirators with exhalation valves
They allow infectious respiratory particles to escape and do not help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
4. Inappropriate handling
When you are not using your mask (when eating or drinking, for example), you should not hang the mask from your ears or pull it down under your chin. Store it in a clean place instead.
Additional resources about mask guidelines and updates on the use of N95 respirators in the community or public spaces can be found on federal and provincial websites such as the Government of Canada, Province of Ontario, and school board websites such as Toronto District School Board.