covid19, Face masks, n95, pandemic, surgical masks Jeff Su, RN -

Which face mask should I wear?

woman with 2 masks
Most have been diligent with social distancing and hand hygiene since the start of the pandemic, however the number of cases still kept rising.  CDC has finally confirmed the findings of many scientists that COVID-19 can also be transmitted in the air.  Until the general public receive an effective vaccine, it would be in the best interest of public’s safety for everyone to wear a face covering. 


There is still a lot of confusion about which face covering to wear to protect you and your family.  This article will review available face coverings from a nurse’s perspective.  As an affiliate, we may receive some compensation for those you choose to purchase from the links below at no additional cost to you.  This article will begin with the most effective respirators down to the least effective:

NIOSH N95 Respirators filters at least 95% of particulates in the air. These respirators must pass high standards and be approved by the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). NIOSH is the federal agency that tests and approves all respirators used in occupational settings. There are actually respirators that provide even higher levels of protection than the N95s but they are difficult to find now and cost-prohibitive for most.

Hospitals require a FIT test to ensure the N95 fits your face properly as not all N95s provide a tight seal depending on the shape of your face. If you have a beard, this will prevent a tight seal from your mask to your face and would defeat the purpose of having an N95. Due to its tight fit and blocking 95% particulates in the air, it becomes a little difficult to breathe after some time. There are a lot of counterfeits for N95 so it would be best to stick with the approved NIOSH N95 on the list from the CDC 

Before a manufacturer can be granted the NIOSH N95 designation, they must submit paper called premarket notification 510K and receive FDA approval that it is safe and effective. Previously, CDC discouraged the public from using N95 due to the massive shortage and medical staff having to reuse their N95. That is gross. But now, there are more available to the public. Most suppliers have a Minimum Order Quantity as they are shipping directly from their overseas factories directly to the clinic or hospital.  You can purchase just a case of N95 though suppliers will charge you a surcharge for ordering below the minimum order quantity and they would have to store these PPE in a warehouse while waiting for delivery. 

If you want the best protection at relatively affordable prices when you are out shopping, you can consider the NIOSH N95 respirator such as AOK Tooling PTX-20180016L which can be purchased from $3.99-$4.49/pc depending on the amount ordered. Or a N95 respirator like the Biotech Innova N95, which comes in different sizes and the unique aspect of this N95 is that the filtration does not degrade over time and it does not cause skin damage like 3M 1860.  One of their big clients include the US Department of Justice.  These N95 can be purchased from $2.10-2.60/pc (depending on the amount ordered). Note that these were designed for single use though the CDC permits reusing them during this crisis provided you follow the manufacturers guidance on decontamination.

KN95 is rated to block out 95% of particulates in the air, however, as a nurse, I must point out a major design flaw with KN95. Unlike the N95s, it has an ear loop design just like the surgical masks or face masks where the bands from the mask wrap around your ears. This does NOT allow a tight fit as the distance between our mouth and ears is different for everyone and as a result, can allow particulates into your mouth and nose from the sides of the mask. Most US hospitals do NOT accept the use of KN95 and I do not recommend them. These KN95 be likened to an expensive surgical mask. Due to its design flaw and lack of fit, it would be more advisable to wear either a N95 or ASTM Level 1 mask.

Next are disposable ASTM Level 1-3 surgical masks. These masks have 3 layers and have been tested to their various levels of filtration effectiveness. These will provide a higher level of protection than the civilian/non-medical facemasks, reusable cloth masks and neck gaiters. Please note these masks were designed for single use. Level 2 and Level 3 masks are typically used by certain medical workers in the clinics and hospitals.  The ASTM Level 1 face masks would be great for every day use.  The ASTM Level 1 masks can be ordered for $0.17-0.24/pc (depending on the amount ordered).

The 3ply non-medical civilian masks, cloth masks, and neck gaiters will be lumped together as general face coverings. These are not tested for their filtration efficiency and should be considered the absolute minimum level when in public. Some who have trouble breathing will find the cloth masks and neck gaiters easier to breathe in. Although it will not protect the wearer from inhaling the potential COVID-19, it will block much of your droplets from spreading to others - which is essential to slow the spread of a global pandemic. Stylish Hawaiian print neck gaiters can be obtained for $16.96 + shipping.


Whether you decide to use a N95 respirator for optimal level protection or an ASTM Level 1 face mask or a neck gather for normal use in the public, you have a range of choices that can protect yourself and others during this pandemic.