When to wear what face mask

Face masks can serve two different purposes:

  1. To protect the environment from contamination by the wearer of the mask.
  2. To protect the wearer from contamination by the environment.

It’s probably safe to say that all mask types to some extent serve a bit of both purposes. But if you want to primarily protect the environment from the particles you exhale, you should wear a surgical face mask. If your main goal is to protect yourself from inhaling unwanted particles, you should wear a PPE (personal protective equipment) mask.

Masks that serve the first purpose are generally referred to as “surgical face masks”. These masks were designed for use in an operating room, where the patient needs to be protected from particles exhaled by the medical staff.

In the EU surgical face masks are considered Class I medical devices. According to EU norm EN 14683:2019+AC:2019, these masks come in three types:

  • Type I, bacterial filtration ≥95%
  • Type II, bacterial filtration ≥98%
  • Type IIR, bacterial filtration ≥98% and splash resistant

 

In the US these masks are regulated by code ASTM F2100, and come in three types:

  • Level 1, filtering ≥95% of 3.0 microns, and ≥95% of 0.1 microns
  • Level 2, filtering ≥98% of 3.0 microns, and ≥98% of 0.1 microns
  • Level 3, filtering ≥98% of 3.0 microns, and ≥98% of 0.1 microns

In China surgical masks are regulated by code YY 0468, and come in just one type, filtering ≥95% of 3.0 microns, and only ≥30% of 0.1 microns. There is another type of mask called just “face masks”, regulated by code YY/T0969, filtering ≥95% of 3.0 microns, and with no requirement of 0.1 microns filtration.

Masks that protect the wearer from contamination by their environment are called a large variety of names and are classified as personal protective equipment (PPE).

In the EU FFP (filtering face piece) masks are regulated by EN 149:2009 and come in 3 types:

  • FFP1: filtering ≥80% of airborne particles, <22% inward leakage
  • FFP2: filtering ≥94% of airborne particles, <8% inward leakage
  • FFP3: filtering ≥99% of airborne particles, <2% inward leakage

 

In the US, these masks (also called respirators) are regulated by NIOSH 42 CFR 84 and come in 3 types:

  • N95: filtering ≥95% of airborne particles
  • N99: filtering ≥99% of airborne particles
  • N100: filtering ≥99.97% of airborne particles

 

In China, PPE masks follow the KN-95 standard.

In Europe, both Class I medical devices and PPE are required to display a CE certification mark. The CE mark is a declaration of conformity with health, safety and environmental protection standards, and is required to sell products in the EU, whether they are produced inside or outside the EU.

In the US the equivalent sometimes is the FCC Declaration of Conformity, used for some electrical devices.

Now, it might be a small detail, but if the CE mark is important to you, check it closely, as there is also a “China Export” mark that looks surprisingly similar, but has no relation with the European mark and serves a very different purpose.

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