Surgical vs. N95 Masks: What Do They Actually Protect Against?

By Adem Lewis / in , , , , , , , , , , , , , , /

(playful music) (water sloshing) – If you’ve been paying
attention to the news at all for the past couple of
weeks, you’ve probably heard about the coronavirus outbreak in China. First things first, we
here at Wirecutter think that you should not panic. There’s only been 12 documented
cases of the coronavirus here in the U.S., and comparatively, somewhere between 10,000 and 25,000 people have died of the much more
common flue since October. So the best thing you can do is keep calm, get your flu shot, and, (bell ringing) wash your hands. Despite the relatively low risk
of coronavirus in the U.S., pharmacies and online
retailers like Amazon have been selling out
of these surgical masks and N95 respirators like this one. These are called N95, which means that they’re
government-certified to block 95% of small airborne particles. They do so via an activated carbon layer and a polypropylene filter
that blocks out particulate as small as .3 microns. For comparison, a human strand of hair is about 75 microns in size. We liked this model from 3M last year because of its pretty sturdy straps compared to some of the ones we tested, its M nose bridge, which
locks tightly onto your face, as well as this thing here, which is called an exhalation valve. When you’re breathing out,
your face can get pretty hot, and this sort of keeps you cool. These are surgical masks. You’ve seen these on
doctors, in hospitals, maybe you’ve seen a nail
technician wearing one or you’ve seen them on the subway. Basically, they’re made
out of cheap latex, and they secure around your
face with elastic bands or just kind of like cheap
plastic ties like these ones. But none of these masks are airtight. So that means that there is
room for airborne pathogens to sort of sneak in through the side. The best these can offer
is a physical barrier between you and any
sort of spritz or splash that may come your way. So what will these protect you against? Viruses, these are a no for surgical masks (buzzer ringing)
and a yes for N95 respirators. (bell ringing) Viruses are teeny, tiny, and
they travel on water vapor that can pretty easily
sneak in through the sides of the mask. (person sneezing) Also, if you are going
to wear one of these and you prefer to have
that barrier anyway, make sure to take the
mask off by the straps. A lot of people have a
tendency to take the mask off by the front, and let’s say
you touched a subway pole or you touched someone who
was swarming with the flu. Now there’s only this thin latex barrier between your mouth and
someone else’s illness. But let’s say you’re sick
and you can’t stay home and you need to get to the doctor. It should hold in your
coughs and your sneezes, but like I said, it doesn’t
seal tightly to your face. So if someone unlucky is sitting
next to you on the subway when you sneeze, they could
get a small sprinkling. Once you exhale enough humid air, these can get sort of damp, making them more susceptible
to picking up a virus. These are N95s. These will definitely
protect you from a virus. These are only ever
going to work correctly if they’re properly fitted to your face. So if you have a beard,
you’re out of luck. That said, they’re hot,
they’re uncomfortable, they’re difficult to breathe through, so you probably don’t
wanna wear one of these unless you’re in the same
room as an infected person. Oop, pollen, pollen is also
a no for surgical masks. (buzzer ringing)
And it is a definite yes (bell ringing)
for N95 respirators. Pollen can sneak in through
the sides of the mask. So the best it can do is provide a barrier for a little while. At 10 microns, pollen is
relatively pretty big. So N95 should have no
problem filtering them out of your respiratory system. Mold, this is another
no for surgical masks. (buzzer ringing) For mold, you’ll need an N95. (bell ringing) So if you’re cleaning up
after a home renovation or a flood or something like that, you should absolutely
be using one of these to protect your lungs. Smog, perhaps you’re
noticing a trend here, but this is also a no for surgical masks. (buzzer ringing) Despite the thousands
of people who wear these in smoggy cities, they don’t actually
protect you from pollution. For N95s, smog is a yes, but. Smog is a mix of things, including soot, which an N95 can definitely
protect you against. However, it’s also made up
of gases like nitrogen oxide and other chemicals called
volatile organic compounds. Volatile organic compounds
evaporate into the air, and they’re too small in size for an N95 respirator to capture. Wildfire smoke, these are a very serious, we’re running out of room here, but these are a very serious no (buzzer ringing)
for surgical masks. Surgical masks will not
protect you in wildfire smoke. And for N95s, wildfire
smoke is a yes, but. During California’s
wildfire season last summer, local government agencies
and community centers would hand out N95s like this one to make sure that residents stayed safe. However, wildfire smoke doesn’t only let off particulate dust. It also lets off those
volatile organic compounds that I mentioned before, and an N95 won’t protect you from those. Those are from houses burning down, oil burning off of roads, all those things that sort of get burnt in a wildfire. If you are in a wildfire area, you will definitely need
to be wearing one of these and you should chuck it
after eight hours of use. Paint fumes, these are
another no for surgical masks. (buzzer ringing) And for N95s, these are also a no. (buzzer ringing) The molecules in paint fumes are so small that an N95 is not gonna pick them up and be able to filter them out. Cigarette smoke and marijuana smoke, again, for surgical masks,
both of these are a no. (buzzer ringing) So the best thing to do is
avoid the unsafe situation and remove yourself. And for N95s, these are a yes, but. An N95, like we already know, can pick up any smoke particles, but cigarettes also give
off carbon monoxide, which an N95 can’t filter. So the best thing to do
is just leave the room and don’t harsh anyone’s vibe. So now that we’ve terrified you about these volatile organic compounds, we should probably show
you which respirator will work to protect you against them. This is our reusable respirator pick with attachable P100 filters. Filters like these attachable P100 ones are certified to block out 99.97% of airborne particulate, including those that are oil-based like lead paint or pesticides. But unless you’re doing
your best Bane impression, “Oh, you think darkness is your ally. “You merely adopted the dark. “I was born in it.” (laughing) You probably won’t need these. People have a habit of buying
these pretty indiscriminately. So if you’re thinking
about getting a respirator, you should really evaluate
which one you need and what you need it for. (calming music) People are pretty panicked
about the coronavirus, but they don’t need to be. And they definitely don’t
need to be buying up all the respirators and surgical masks, especially since a lot of hospital workers really need them. So like I said, relax, don’t panic, and most of all, wash your hands. – [Woman] You like haven’t missed a catch – [Man] That is true. – This whole time.
– Yeah. – I’m the most athletic
person at Wirecutter. (laughing) I’m just kidding. – [Woman] You don’t know, you don’t know? – Mostly because I’m so
nervous that I’m like, I like reach my arms out as
far as they can go to Hunter. – [Woman] Me too when I’m nervous. (laughing)

16 thoughts on “Surgical vs. N95 Masks: What Do They Actually Protect Against?

  1. The same people who sneeze in their palms, then shake hands with somebody are the ones who panic about this stuff. Ridiculous!

  2. The most important info is buried at the end, 6:41.
    Healthcare workers need these masks, mostly to protect patients undergoing surgery or with compromised immune systems.
    Viruses are measured on the scale of billionths of a meter (or nanometers.) N95 masks can only filter larger viruses. Small and medium sized, dry airborne viruses can still pass through.
    This can easily be verified with a quick look at Wikipedia and the CDC's website. Who did the fact checking for this video?

  3. I heard lying on the beach in Greece with a Freddo cappuccino coffee and a smoke enjoying the sun and sea is the safest way to combat viruses🤠👍🇬🇷😂

  4. Full face respirator with germ-rated canister filter > half face respirator with P100 cartridges > N95 mask > surgical mask

  5. This N95 has NO active carbon in it and active carbon has no influence on a virus. A N95 mask does 95% of particulates whit a size of 0,3 micron. A virus is 0,1 micron, how can a N95 protect against a virus? Due to Brownian Motion and those whit a valve will work and are more comfty to wear. Paint fumes, the molecule size does not matter paint fumes contain VOC's an active carbon filter can filter these out by absorption (a chem. reaction between the active carbon and the VOC) the molecule size does not matter at all, deferent techniek. The respirator in 6:06 is a 3M 6500 the 3M 7500 (7501 small/02 medium/03 large) is silicone go for that one the P100 filters 3M2291 on there can't do VOC's as well, for VOC's get a 3M 60921 for broad band protection get a 3M60926 (for Europe and Australia ABEK-P3) NOTE: these filters do NOT filter CO Carbon Monoxide!!! or other oxidizing gasses like CO2, SO2, O3 that are pollutants. And there are people who look like Bane out of the Bad man movie I am one of them "we" need a mask just to get around in normal life. I and many others have Multipele Chemical Sensitivity, you perfume or fabric softener can kill us and here is a page were we present or self's to the world in the hope you do understand us and the reason for or mask better and if things do go wrong like the neighbors using dryer sheets this can happen: SO PLEAS STOP ASKING IF WE ARE AFRAID OF THE CORONA VIRUS! We actually are afraid of coming in to contact whit an fume that could kill us like your expensive perfume or your fabric softener or even worse your laundry perfume.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *