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N95, P100, homemade face masks: what are the differences?

For several months now, wearing a face mask has been highly recommended. But not all face masks are equal in terms of protection. So what are the differences between these masks? 

Mask 1: The N95 mask or N95 respirator

The N95 mask provides 95% respiratory protection for the person wearing it. This respirator filters out 95% of infectious particles such as fluids and dust contained in the air. In addition, the N95 mask is effective in reducing risk of respiratory diseases, such as tuberculosis, and more recently, COVID-19. 

The N95 surgical respirator is intended for medical workers and other healthcare workers working with immunodeficient patients. Unlike the homemade cloth mask (mentioned below), the N95 mask both protects the user and prevents them from infecting others. Disposable N95 masks are single-use, and should be changed about every 4 hours for optimal protection. 

Mask 2: P100 mask

The P100 mask is traditionally associated to the construction industry, though current N95 supply constraints have led some healthcare workers to use P100 masks in their daily effort to fight COVID-19. 

The P100 respirator provides a higher level of protection, compared to the N95 respirator. The P100 filters 99.9% of airborne particles, including oil-based particles. 

Mask 3: The cloth face mask 

The homemade cloth face mask is a mask created from household fabrics such as sheets, clothes or rags. With the lack of available masks in onset of COVID19, many Canadians have created their own face masks in order to protect themselves and those around them. Several videos and tutorials are now available to do it yourself. Although there has been no test on the effectiveness of these face masks, the Public Health Agency of Canada has given its approval for the use of non-medical masks for the general public. PHAC states that cloth face masks help to protect others, and should be combined with other preventative measures provided by the government (social distancing and hygiene measures). This is especially important given the prevalence of asymptomatic COVID carriers. 

Mask 4: The surgical mask 

The surgical mask is often worn by medical and frontline staff. As with the cloth masks, surgical masks can help to prevent the user from spreading illness. Surgical masks also protect the users from airborne particles. It is less airtight and more flexible than an N95 mask, but offers limited protection. It filters out particles measuring from 1 to 5 microns. Similar to the disposable N95 mask, surgical masks are traditionally a single-use product.