People around the world are donning face masks whenever the air quality gets bad, whether it’s due to the haze or just smog. But do they REALLY work?
Do Face Masks Really Help With Haze Or Air Pollution?
The most common face masks worn to combat air pollution are surgical masks, although decorative masks are also available for the fashion-conscious.
However, while extremely popular, surgical masks actually cannot help at all with the haze, smog or general air pollution.
Why Face Masks Can’t Filter Air Pollution
Face masks, including the popular 3-ply surgical mask, are designed to do two things :
- prevent the user from transferring bodily fluids to other people when they sneeze or cough
- prevent the user from touching their mouth or nose with their hands (which may be contaminated with a patient’s bodily fluids)
They have a central filter layer, but that is only designed to trap microbes, not air pollutants.
More critically, surgical masks do not offer an airtight fit around the nose and mouth, allowing air to come in from the sides when you inhale.
This applies even to the 4-layer or 5-layer consumer face masks that are ostensibly designed to “combat air pollution” – they do NOT provide an airtight fit around your nose and mouth.
So even if they come with an activated charcoal filter or other fancy filters, you will end up breathing unfiltered air coming in from the sides of these face masks.
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PM2.5 + PM10 Air Pollutants
Air pollution basically consists of solid particles and liquid droplets suspended in the air.
To monitor air quality, governments and organisations generally measure and report the quantity of either or both PM2.5 and PM10 particles in the air.
PM10 particles are smaller than 10 microns (0.01 mm) in diameter. High levels of PM10 air pollution will cause irritation of the eyes and throats, and exacerbate heart and lung conditions or cause breathing difficulties.
|Air Quality Category||24-hour PM10
|One hour PM10
|Very Good||0 – 16.4||0 – 26.3|
|Good||16.5 – 32.9||26.4 – 52.7|
|Fair||33.0 – 49.9||52.8 – 79.9|
|Poor||50.0 – 74.9||80.0 – 119.9|
|Very Poor||75 or greater||120 or greater|
PM2.5 particles are smaller than 2.5 microns (0.025 mm) in diameter. They are especially dangerous because they can be breathed deep into lungs, causing long-term health effects.
|Air Quality Category||24-hour PM2.5
|One hour PM2.5
|Very Good||0 – 8.2||0 – 13.1|
|Good||8.3 – 16.4||13.2 – 26.3|
|Fair||16.5 – 25.0||26.4 – 39.9|
|Poor||25.1 – 37.4||40.0 – 59.9|
|Very Poor||37.5 or greater||60 or greater|
Any face mask you use must be capable of filtering not only PM10 particles, but also the finer and more dangerous PM2.5 particles. Otherwise, they are useless and are no better than placebos and prayers.
Face Masks vs. Respirators
What we actually need to filter out air pollutants in the haze or smog are N95 respirators.
They may look like surgical masks, but they are quite different as this 3M video demonstrates :
N95 respirators are available in surgical and industrial versions, and are designed to filter 95% of particles with a median diameter of 0.3 microns.
More importantly, they are designed to form a tight seal over your mouth and nose, so that the air you breathe in actually goes through the filter.
You will notice how much harder it is to breathe through the N95 respirator, than it is through a surgical mask. That’s because the air has to pass through the filter, instead of coming in from the sides.
Both aspects allow N95 respirators to actually filter out air pollutants, both PM10 and the more dangerous PM2.5 particles.
Are N95 Respirators Reusable?
Many N95 respirators are designed to be disposable. However, that’s because they are meant to be used in surgical settings.
When we are using it to combat air pollution, it is perfectly fine to reuse it… as long as it is clean.
Also, it can get really humid inside the N95 respirator, and in hot weather, you will sweat into the inner layer.
Don’t reuse it if it’s soaked with your sweat and spittle, because that is itself a health risk right there!
Which N95 Respirator Mask Should You Buy?
N95 respirator masks are available in industrial and surgical versions. But when it comes to filtering out air pollutants, either version will work just fine.
The face hugging style looks better, but the duck bill design allows for more comfortable breathing. They both work – it all depends on whether you prefer fashion or function.
Here are some online purchase options for N95 respirator masks :
Irrespective of what you buy, it is CRITICAL that you follow the proper instructions on how to wear your N95 respirator mask. It will NOT work properly if you do not wear it correctly.
How To Wear Face Masks Correctly
Here are some step-by-step instructions for wearing any face mask correctly, including N95 respirators :
- Clean your hands with soap and water, or hand sanitiser, before touching the mask
- Hold the mask so that the stiff bendable strip is on top, and the coloured side facing outwards.
- If the face mask has ear loops – hold the mask by the ear loops, and place a loop around each ear.
- If the face mask has ties – bring the mask to your nose and place the ties over the crown of your head, and secure by tying them in a bow.
- If the face mask has elastic bands – bring the mask to your nose and pull the top band over your head and let it rest on the crown of your head, and then pull the bottom strap over your head and let it rest on the nape of your neck.
- Mould or pinch the nose strip to conform to the shape of your nose.
- Pull the bottom of the face mask over your mouth and chin.
Additional Notes For N95 Respirators
- N95 respirators may not fit properly for people with facial hair, as it forms a seal with smooth skin
- After fitting an N95 respirator, you should perform a positive and negative pressure check :
a) Negative pressure check – Place both hands over the mask and inhale sharply. The mask should pull into your face, and you should not feel air leaking around your face or eyes.
b) Positive pressure check – Place both hands over the mask and exhale sharply. You should not feel air leaking out around your face or eyes.
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