Levitt-Safety Blog

What is an N95 mask?

Heidi LevittCo-CEOApril 22, 2020

Levitt-Safety's respiratory safety expert, Tony Guarino, spoke with Marcel Vander Wier, editor of OHS Canada on the podcast Safe Zone following our panel discussion about COVID-related face mask questions,

On the podcast Tony answered common questions about N95 masks.

What is an N95 mask?


An N95 mask is a NIOSH-approved disposable respirator designed to protect the wearer from airborne particles. This type of respirator is designed to filter non-oil-based particles and is 95 percent efficient at filtering these particles out. These are tight fitting respirators, also referred to as filtering facepiece respirators.

Note: NIOSH stands for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. It is responsible for conducting research and making recommendations for the prevention of work-related injury and illness.

Why is the N95 commonly used in healthcare?

N95 masks are commonly used in healthcare and infectious disease control for filtering out small bacteria and viruses particles. They work well for infection control because they are disposable and the healthcare worker doesn’t have to worry about decontaminating or cleaning the mask.

Why is the demand so high for N95 masks right now?

The outbreak has gone on for a few months now and it’s a global outbreak. We have multiple regions looking for the same piece of equipment at the same time.

Why are N95s more popular than other types of masks?

In healthcare N95s are used because they are disposable. They work very well for their protective purposes, like going into an isolation room. When the healthcare worker leaves the isolation room, they take the mask off, throw it away and get a new one.

Another mask options is a reusable respirator which requires cleaning or decontamination between uses.

Are there alternatives to N95 masks?

Because there is a shortage of N95 masks in the world right now, we’ve had to look at other options that are similar to N95 masks and meet requirements from other approval agencies around the world.

For example, the KN95.

The KN95 is another disposable respirator similar to the N95. It meets the requirements of an approval agency other than NIOSH. It is an item we are ordering until 3M and other companies can rebuild their stock of N95 masks.

Can you use an expired N95 mask or reuse non-expired masks?

In order to prepare for an outbreak or pandemic, many healthcare organizations will stock up on large amounts of disposable respirators. Over the years, these products expire.

Manufacturers put expiry dates on these products because they have components made out of rubber and foam. Over time those components can deteriorate or break. If this is the case, the expired mask may not offer the same level of protection it once did.

Also, in some brands the filtering material is electrostatically charged. Over the years the mask will lose that electrostatic charge. You should follow manufacturer recommendations regarding expired masks.

If you choose to use the mask, it needs to be inspected prior to use to ensure it hasn't deteriorated.

Read our expired N95 mask post for a more in-depth explanation.

Why is the need for these masks so important in hospitals?

Because there is an unprecedented demand for these masks, it’s important to prioritize where these masks go. The manufacturers are trying to keep the flow going to medical workers in healthcare and emergency front line staff. We are seeing some private companies, like Bruce Power, donate their N95s for healthcare facilities to use.

Should the general public be using N95 masks?

Health Canada is not recommending the general public use masks for protection. Instead they recommend that the general public practice physical distancing by keeping at least 6 feet or 2 meters apart from other people.

One of the problems with the general public using masks is they don’t have procedures in place for changing masks. There is always the risk that when you’re putting a mask on, you might touch your face. If you have a contaminant on your hand, now you’ve touched your face or mouth and that contaminant is able to spread.

Update: Since this podcast was recorded, Health Canada released considerations for homemade masks. Their website states facial covering and non-medical masks have not been proven to protect the person wearing it and it is not a substitute for physical distancing and hand washing. “However, it can be an additional measure you can take to protect others around you, even if you have no symptoms.”

Health Canada's website goes on to state:

Medical masks, including surgical, medical procedure face masks and respirators (like N95 masks), must be kept for healthcare workers and others providing direct care to COVID-19 patients.

Can you reuse an N95 mask?

If you’re reusing a mask, there’s the hazard that you are taking the mask off and then putting it back on. The outside of the mask has foreign contaminants and as you’re handling it, you could be transferring the contaminants to your face.

Do N95 masks need to be fit tested?

For N95 masks to provide the proper level of protection, you need to be fit tested and receive proper training. This ensures that you're donning the respirator properly and that you have the correct size for your face.

Want to learn more?

Watch our panel discussion about face protection during COVID-19