How Do Surgical, N95, and KN95 Face Masks Differ?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends different medical face masks for different circumstances and situations. The first step in understanding which mask is most appropriate for you is in identifying the differences between the surgical face mask, N95 respirator mask, and KN95 mask.

Surgical Face Mask

Manufactured from non-woven fabric and designed to keep the surgical field sterile, surgical face masks act as barriers from liquid splashes and direct aerosols (as from a sneeze or cough). Intended for relatively short wear, a disposable surgical mask fits loosely to the face. ASTM guidelines for surgical face masks outline four levels of protection, ranging from minimum, designed for medical procedures that don't involve fluid or aerosol spray, up through Level 3, which is meant to protect against heavy exposure with 160 mm Hg fluid resistance.

Typically made with two filter layers, surgical face masks are effective at blocking large droplets and particles as small as 0.1 microns when properly worn. Due to the loose fit of surgical face masks, they do not effectively provide protection from small, airborne particles, as from a cough or a sneeze. RB Medical Supply's disposable surgical masks meet ASTM Level 2 specifications, offering 120 mm Hg fluid resistance, which provides a barrier against light or moderate aerosol, fluid and spray.

N95 Respirator Mask

Similar to surgical face masks, an N95 respirator mask, also known as an N95 mask, provides protection from contact with liquids. Composed of multiple layers of synthetic material, N95 masks are so named because they are capable of filtering out at least 95 percent of relevant particles. N95 respirator masks are designed to create a seal around the mouth and nose. This makes them far more effective at protecting against airborne particles, such as those from coughing, sneezing or medical procedures producing aerosol spray.

Depending on the design, N95 masks can filter particles as small as 0.1 microns, though 0.3-micron filtration is the standard. RB Medical Supply's domestically made N95 respirator masks are made with two layers of spun bonded polypropylene and two layers of mesh blown nonwoven polypropylene, providing protection against particles and bacteria that are 0.1 microns or larger.

KN95 Face Mask

Because they are so similar in name, many people often assume KN95 masks and N95 respirator masks are the same thing. In many ways, they are very similar. They are both composed of several layers of synthetic materials that filter 95 percent of 0.3 micron or larger particles in the air. However, these masks are held to different standards depending on which country is providing certification.

The N95 respirator mask is the US standard, while the KN95 mask is the China standard. N95 masks undergo extensive testing throughout the certification process from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a branch of the CDC. Tested specifically for use in the medical field, the N95 is the only mask typically approved for healthcare use in the United States. However, due to PPE shortages brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC has granted emergency use authorizations (EUAs) to KN95 masks that meet filtration requirements.

Though their filtration is the same, KN95 and N95 masks do have some key differences. First, the certification process for KN95 masks requires a fit test be performed using human subjects to ensure no more than an 8 percent leakage. N95 masks are not required to undergo such a test prior to NIOSH certification. Another key difference between KN95 and N95 masks involves the standard for pressure drop that occurs when inhaling and exhaling. N95 certification requires a stricter standard for each, which makes N95 masks slightly more breathable than KN95 masks.

Which Face Mask Is Best for Me?

Health officials universally agree that wearing face masks is the most effective method for slowing the spread of COVID-19. However, due to PPE shortages, it's important to ensure we are wearing the correct mask for our given situation. Here's a look at which mask option is best for you.

When to Use Surgical Face Masks

Though in better supply today than when the COVID-19 pandemic began, the CDC does not currently recommend surgical face masks for widespread public use. Because these masks provide the wearer protection against droplet particles 0.1 microns or larger, surgical face masks should generally be worn by healthcare workers and first responders who may come into contact with contagious patients, including suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19. Patients who have, or are suspected to have, highly contagious illnesses, such as COVID-19, should also wear surgical face masks to more effectively protect those around them from becoming infected.

When to Use N95 or KN95 Masks

KN95 and N95 respirator masks are intended for use in healthcare settings, specifically to protect the wearer from exposure to illnesses, including COVID-19. When in short supply, both the N95 and KN95 masks should be reserved for healthcare workers who are treating patients with infectious diseases, including COVID-19. Because each is held to the same filtration standard, in most cases, either the N95 respirator or KN95 face mask will offer the same protection against exposure. However, due to the different standards regarding pressure drop making the N95 respirator more breathable, N95 respirator masks should be reserved for healthcare workers who suffer from respiratory issues, such as asthma or COPD. The design of KN95 and N95 respirator masks requires a tight fit against the face. These masks will not be able to provide the same level of protection for children or people with facial hair because this ideal fit cannot be achieved.

RB Medical Supply is Your Trusted Medical Face Mask Supplier

RB Medical Supply, a division of RB Sigma, LLC, is a top-tier medical supplier for COVID-19 personal protective equipment and more. We believe in protecting frontline workers, employees and the community at large by offering high-quality, wholesale medical supplies. We domestically manufacture PPE, including our surgical face masks and N95 respirator masks, to the most rigorous standards, giving you confidence when ordering the best medical face masks for you. Depend on us, your trusted medical supplier located in the heart of Northeast Ohio.