Even before the reappearance of COVID-19 in the community and the re-lockdown of Auckland, the government was advising us to use face masks. It came on the back of new advice from the World Health Organisation.
By stopping droplets from people’s mouths and noses, a mask can stop an infected person spreading the disease. It can also protect healthy people from breathing in the virus.
The government is now recommending that we all wear a mask when we’re out and about. But what are the differences between the masks commonly available. And where can you purchase them?
What are the main types of face masks?
When looking for face masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, there are generally three types:
- P2, N95 and KN95 respirators
- Surgical masks
- Cloth face masks
What is a P2 mask?
Also known as a respirator, a P2 mask is designed to filter the air and block particles above a certain size, including smoke and fine dust. They are commonly used by DIYers who don’t want to breath in dust while doing jobs such as sanding, grinding or working with insulation.
What’s the difference between P2, N95 and KN95 face masks?
You’ll often find face masks described as either P2, N95 or KN95. Essentially, they are all the same. The codes represent the standards used by different countries: P2 is the European standard; N95 is the US equivalent, and KN95 is the Chinese version.
Where can I buy a P2 mask?
As P2 masks are a workplace safety item, they are usually available at hardware stores and other safety equipment suppliers.
The extra protection of a P2 mask means they’re more expensive than surgical masks. For example, a popular hardware retailer’s website lists P2 masks at $3 per mask ($29.99 for a pack of 10), and surgical masks at 80c each ($39.99 for a pack of 50).
Given prices fluctuate between suppliers (especially during times of high demand!) it pays to shop around.
What are the benefits of a P2 mask?
P2 masks are generally used to reduce exposure to particles, gases or vapours in the air, such as paint or dust.
A P2 mask removes around 95% of particles that are at least 0.3 microns in diameter. They can also reduce the wearer’s exposure to contagious airborne viruses, similar to the current coronavirus. The mask is only effective, however, if it’s worn correctly, so that it’s properly fitted and airtight.
When wearing a P2 mask, ensure that it’s sealed tightly over the bridge of your nose and around your mouth. You can check the seal by inhaling. If the mask is not sucked in toward your face, or if air leaks around the seal, you may need to readjust the mask or try a different size or style. Remember: the masks may be difficult to fit on children or people with facial hair.
What is a surgical mask?
A disposable surgical mask is typically worn by medical staff to prevent transmission of diseases by exposure to large droplets of fluid or a patient’s breath. They are available from shops including supermarkets, chemist stores, and DIY centres.
Unlike a P2 mask, which creates a seal around the wearer’s mouth and nose, they are loose-fitting. Surgical masks are also not specifically designed to filter small particles, so are a less effective barrier against airborne viruses, which are smaller than smoke particles.
However a surgical mask may still provide some level of protection against the bodily fluids of those around you, such as droplets from a cough or sneeze. They may also help to stop the spread of your own germs, if you are showing cold or flu symptoms.
Are cloth face masks effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19?
Cloth face masks don’t offer protection against minuscule droplets, and therefore are not very effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19. A medical study found that a surgical mask is three times more effective in blocking transmission of the flu virus than a homemade cloth mask.
However the study concluded that when used as a last resort, a cloth mask is better than no protection at all.
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