Surgical Masks vs. N95 Respirators

by Rhonda Lawes, PhD, RN

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    00:00 Hi. Welcome to our video series on personal protective equipment for health care personnel.

    00:06 Now, on this one, we're gonna look at the very big difference between surgical masks and respirators.

    00:13 On your screen, you'll see a surgical mask on the top and an N95 respirator on the bottom.

    00:20 Now, these are the two pieces of personal protective equipment that we're comparing today.

    00:25 Now, a surgical mask is what you can buy at any drugstores, just a very common piece of equipment.

    00:31 It ties around the back of your head or it might even have elastic straps but usually, it just ties around the back of your head.

    00:38 Now, let's look at these four areas of comparison because an N95 respirator is very, very different in all four of these areas.

    00:51 Okay, so, first let's take a look at the fit to the face. Now, a surgical mask is very lose.

    00:58 So, it's lose-fitting. You can get snug and you may think, "Ugh, this is uncomfortable wearing this." But when you put on an N95 respirator, you'll know the difference.

    01:10 It's extremely tight-fitting. In fact, that's how it keeps you safe.

    01:15 Now, an N95 requires a really special test called fit testing.

    01:21 So, look at these guys in the picture, doesn't that look like fun.

    01:24 Fit testing is a series of tests and assessments and it has to be done by a trained evaluator.

    01:31 So, you or I couldn't fit test ourselves. You have to go somewhere and have these series of tests done.

    01:38 And it's kind of fun if you've ever done it.

    01:41 If you just don't think about all that's going on and if you're claustrophobic, you may kind of wanna let them know.

    01:48 But the goal of this testing is to make sure the respirator forms such a tight seal on your face that you can't smell things but you can still breathe. Okay? That is the goal there.

    02:02 So, a fit testing, you can't do it yourself. It needs to be a trained evaluator.

    02:07 There's several steps to fit testing and you may have to try different types of respirators to see which one works best for you, fits your face, keeps you safe, and you can tolerate.

    02:20 Okay, I love this picture. I was hoping they'd let us do a bearded baby and the reason we put this up here you may be wondering is because fit equals effectiveness when it comes to a respirator.

    02:34 So, N95 respirators are not designed for children or people with facial hair and if you happened to know a baby with this much facial hair, please let us know.

    02:46 Okay, what's the goal behind this? Because proper fit can't be achieved on kids or people with facial hair.

    02:53 Remember, it's gotta be super tight and you have to pass that fit test to make sure you have the appropriate wear.

    02:59 So, a beard is just gonna get in the way.

    03:01 Because if it doesn't fit, it may not provide you the full protection that you need.

    03:07 So, a surgical mask does not require a fit test. They'll just be in a box and available till you can put it on.

    03:14 An N95 respirator has to be a very specific piece that is fit tested just for you so we know that it's effective and safe.

    03:25 Now, as far as one-time use, meaning, should this be used and then, thrown away, that is the original intent.

    03:32 Both surgical masks and N95 respirators should be thrown away.

    03:36 Then, you may be saying, "Hey, this N95 respirator kind of looks like what I've seen painters use or people in other industries." You're right. That is very similar which in fact, in times of crisis, we have to come up with a different plan.

    03:54 So, you may be wondering, can you reuse an N95 mask? Well, they are intended for single use but if there's a time of shortage like in a pandemic when people are running short of PPE, personal protective equipment, they can actually be reused.

    04:13 Now, let that sink in for a little bit because you may be kind of uncomfortable with that thought.

    04:18 I know when you study PPE and how to take it on and how to take it off, you know that the outside of that mask is contaminated, so, you have to be very careful how you handle it and if that is our only option for safety, then, reuse is acceptable if the mask and here's in quotation marks cuz I want you to pay very close attention to this.

    04:41 The mask has to maintain its structural and functional integrity and look at that filter.

    04:48 Make sure it's not physically damaged or soiled.

    04:51 Those are the examples of when you can reuse an N95 respirator mask.

    04:57 Now, a surgical mask is not reliable for smaller, airborne particles, okay? So, keep in mind here's why.

    05:05 It's loose-fitting, it's not fit tested and we know that both of them are technically only a one-time use.

    05:13 But what can this surgical mask do? Now, if a surgical mask is worn properly, meaning, it's not fit tested but you do have it on snug, it's covering your nose, mouth, and it's underneath your chin, these are the things that it can do for you.

    05:29 It will help block large particle droplets, splashes or sprays, or splatter.

    05:35 Now, those may contain germs like viruses or bacteria.

    05:39 We wanna keep that large particle bigger stuff from it reaching your mouth or nose.

    05:45 Cuz once it makes entry into your body, you're at risk for getting sick.

    05:49 So, surgical masks can do that but I want you to underline large there. Right? Diseases that require airborne protection, airborne precautions, are not large particles and that's the problem.

    06:04 Now, surgical masks might also help reduce the exposure of you as a healthcare provider, saliva and your respiratory secretions to others.

    06:14 So, that's a good thing, right? So, you've got that mask on.

    06:17 Now, it will stop large particle droplets, it's got splashes and sprays.

    06:22 That will stop those from getting immediately into your nose or mouth and it will also stop your spray over when you're speaking or talking, your saliva or your respiratory secretions from getting to others.

    06:35 Those are good things unless we're dealing with a disease like COVID-19 that requires airborne precautions.

    06:44 So, here's where an N95 respirator's really a good friend because while a surgical mask is not reliable for some smaller airborne particles, an N95 respirator filters out at least 95% of the airborne particles, but remember, it's gotta be tight fitting, have a good seal, you had a reliable fit test done, those are the requirements for an N95 to keep you safe and filtering out at least 95% of the airborne particles.

    07:17 So, remember, it's a personal protective equipment.

    07:20 You need to be using an FDA-cleared N95 respirator.

    07:24 They're labeled as single-use, disposable devices but in times of shortage, we can reuse them.

    07:30 They've got a very close facial fit. It's an efficient filtration of airborne particles.

    About the Lecture

    The lecture Surgical Masks vs. N95 Respirators by Rhonda Lawes, PhD, RN is from the course COVID-19 Safety for Health Care Professionals (HCP).

    Included Quiz Questions

    1. N95 masks are tight-fitting
    2. N95 masks cannot be fitted properly on children
    3. N95 respirators are one size fits all
    4. N95 respirators can be worn with any kind of facial hair
    5. N95 masks are loose-fitting
    1. If the filter is not damaged
    2. If a surgical mask is placed underneath the N95 mask
    3. If the mask was worn by another person for under thirty minutes
    4. If the mask is washed with soap and water and allowed to dry before reuse
    1. To block large-particle droplets
    2. To fit tightly around the face
    3. To block small particles that travel in the air
    4. To replace an N95 respirator

    Author of lecture Surgical Masks vs. N95 Respirators

     Rhonda Lawes, PhD, RN

    Rhonda Lawes, PhD, RN

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