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There is a lot of misinformation flying around on the news, in conversations with friends, and on the internet.   One of the biggest areas of confusion seems to be surrounding the topic of masks.   Today, we are going to share the facts: what you really need to know about masks and how to protect yourself.

Protecting yourself is a serious business and it is the reason that respirators need to be tested.  Respirator and filter media manufacturing is a highly technical process.

Respirator and Design

While you should wear a mask, you should also know that you are not 100% protected:

Using any material may be like expecting any window covering (like a window shutter in the image below) to stop insects. In addition, picture the window shutter having gaps or not being secured to the window frame (i.e., does not fit properly).

This is why studies have found that some homemade masks only have 1% filtration, which is almost like using nothing at all, compared to others with a 70% filtration.   In this article, you will find how you can make a well-protective mask to give you better protection & coverage.

window with shutters

Who Needs to Wear A Mask? 

As of today (4/5/20), the CDC has issued the following guidelines:

“In light of this new evidence, CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.

It is critical to emphasize that maintaining 6-feet social distancing remains important to slow the spread of the virus.  CDC is additionally advising the use of simple cloth face coverings to slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others.  Cloth face coverings fashioned from household items or made at home from common materials at low cost can be used as an additional, voluntary public health measure.

The cloth face coverings recommended are not surgical masks or N-95 respirators.  Those are critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for healthcare workers and other medical first responders, as recommended by current CDC guidance.”

We do need to be aware that not all masks are created equal.  We need to take proper safety precautions to keep ourselves and others safe. 

There is a major concern that wearing a mask that is not NIOSH-approved might give a person a false sense of safety and lead someone to be less disciplined about social distancing.

Please realize that social distancing remains critical!   

Not All Masks Are Equal

There is a misconception that homemade masks, bandanas, and scarves will offer the same type of protection as an N95 mask (like N95MaskCo’s masks), but this confusion could cost someone their life.  It could cause a false sense of security if someone thinks that they are protected and therefore does not follow the social-distancing recommendation.

“It is important, therefore, to understand that such masks are not necessarily protective for the wearer in terms of preventing inhalation of the residual droplets in the air, which enter from the sides unfiltered, but they can provide a way to reduce the range of contamination from the droplets-laden cloud.” – CDC.

My dad worked for NIOSH for over 30 years.  He was a scientist and Chief of the Policy and Standards Development Branch at the National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory (NPPTL).  They test and approve (certify) respirators.  It was his job (literally) to know all about respirators.   Source: CDC

For this reason, when I saw the confusion over the masks and respirators, I knew that I had to try to clear it up.   Today’s information comes from the CDC as well as the NIOSH website.

N95 Masks (tested & approved by NIOSH to keep 95% of particles out)
Vs. Other Masks
(not approved by NIOSH)

While the CDC does NOT suggest that the general public wear N95 Respirators, as it is “critical [that] supplies such as surgical masks or N-95 respirators continue to be reserved for health care workers and other medical first responders.”  I do want to explain the difference.  It is extremely important.

There are N95 Respirators (NIOSH & CDC approved) and then there are other masks (surgical, homemade, etc…)
N95 Respirators have been tested and approved to keep 95% of particles out.

A screenshot of a social media post

What is NIOSH?

NIOSH is the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.   They are within the CDC.  They conduct research and make recommendations in order to prevent illnesses.

According to the CDC, “NIOSH is part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIOSH as a research agency focused on the study of worker safety and health, and empowering employers and workers to create safe and healthy workplaces.”

I know, personally, that NIOSH has made a world of difference.   They have done so much to help people to be safe, including providing assistance for responder safety and health in the World Trade Center rescue and recovery.

What is a respirator? 

A respirator is a personal protective device that is worn on the face or head and covers at least the nose and mouth. A respirator is used to reduce the wearer’s risk of inhaling hazardous airborne particles (including infectious agents), gases or vapors.

Respirators, including those intended for use in healthcare settings, are certified by the CDC/NIOSH.” –

Respirators Have Ratings:

You need to know that Respirators have ratings.  These ratings show us how many particles are kept out.  You need a respirator that keeps at least 95% of particles out.  This is known as a N-95. 

  • N,” if they are Not resistant to oil
  • R” if somewhat Resistant to oil
  • P” if strongly resistant (oil Proof).  Oil may degrade some types of filter media.

Other NIOSH approved filter classes are N-99, N-100, R-95, R-99, R-100, P-95, P-99, P100.
99= 99% efficient filter media and 100= nearly 100% efficient media when tested by NIOSH.
See the factsheet here.

  • N95: When a respirator filters at least 95% of airborne particles, it is rated as an N-95.  This is not resistant to oil.
    If it is a 95% efficient respirator, this means that it is 95% efficient against the most penetrating particle size. 
  • Surgical N95  is A NIOSH-approved N95 respirator that has also been cleared by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a surgical mask.
  • N99 – This means that it filters at least 99% of airborne particles.
    It is 99% efficient filter media and 100= nearly 100% efficient media when tested by NIOSH. See the CDC Factsheets for more info.

How can I tell if a mask is a NIOSH-approved N-95 respirator?

You can always confirm NIOSH approval by checking the NIOSH Certified Equipment List.   All NIOSH approved masks are labeled with the “NIOSH” logo.  

Comparing Different Types of Masks 

Respirator and filter media manufacturing is a highly technical process. It involves much more than simply shielding your nose and mouth. As I said earlier… using any material may be like expecting any window covering (like a window shutter) to stop insects. In addition, picture the window shutter having gaps or not being secured to the window frame (i.e., does not fit properly).
For more information see

For today’s post, let’s take a look at each type of mask: 

  1. N95 MASK (95% Filtration)
    These are NIOSH approved to filter out 95% of particles.  As of 4/5/20, these should be saved for (or donated to) medical professionals, as they are in short supply.  

  2. SURGICAL MASK:    (62% to 65% filtration)
    These are approved by the FDA (Federal Drug Administration). FDA approved masks are intended to protect the patient– not necessarily the wearer.  More Info:
  3. SURGICAL + N95 MASK: There are masks that are both N-95 and Surgical.  Read about these on CDC’s website here.
  4. HOMEMADE MASK:  (1% – 75% filtration, depending on material, thickness & fit)
    Homemade masks and NON-NIOSH approved masks means that the performance has not been determined. They may or may not protect you.   It all depends on how it’s made. 
    See more info on how to make a protective mask below.
    NIOSH does not clean then retest filtering facepiece respirators or filters used on re-usable respirators as part of the approval process.   Performance after cleaning, the method of cleaning, and the number of cleanings may jeopardize filter performance.
  6. Remember: Continue to maintain social distancing if you are using a non-NIOSH approved mask or respirator.  All NIOSH approved masks are labeled with the “NIOSH” logo. To confirm NIOSH approval, see the NIOSH Certified Equipment List ( ) A close up of a sign about masks and respirators..

Testing reveals the type of cloth used in homemade masks makes a difference: 

“In order to determine the protective qualities of homemade cloth masks, a team of doctors and scientists used rigorous testing, known as particulate filtration, to evaluate 13 different designs from approximately 400 masks made by community volunteers.  Testing was done by the Manufacturing Development Center at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, part of Wake Forest Baptist.

The test team discovered that the masks’ effectiveness varied widely. The best homemade masks achieved 79% filtration as compared to surgical masks (62% to 65%) and N95 masks (97%).  But…

Other homemade masks tested performed significantly worse, sometimes demonstrating as little as 1% filtration.”

The best-performing design was made of two layers of high-quality, heavyweight “quilter’s cotton” with a thread count of 180 or more, and those with an especially tight weave and thicker thread such as batiks. A double-layer mask with a simple cotton outer layer and an inner layer of flannel also performed well, Segal said.

How to Make Your Own Mask: 

Be aware that the reason that the CDC is suggesting that we make our own masks is to protect others around us. Due to the fact that the virus can be spread by someone who has not shown symptoms, wearing the mask can potentially stop that asymptomatic person from spreading it without realizing it.

Here are some tips to remember when making your own mask:

  • Double-layer your mask. If you can hold it up to the sun and you can see through it, even slightly, it is not thick enough.
  • It must cover the nose and mouth
  • Opt for masks that tie around the ear, rather than ones that have a standard elastic band, as the ties can adjust to fit each face better than the elastic band.
  • Make sure to use dry masks. When masks get wet, even from the moisture emitted when a person exhales, the fabric could be more likely to transmit the virus.
  • Wash your mask regularly using regular detergent (you can use a washing machine).
  • Remember to stay home or stay at LEAST 6-feet apart from others, as “surgical masks are helpful at blocking large droplets, but unlike respirators, they do not provide a reliable level of protection from inhaling smaller airborne particles, according to the CDC.”  – USAtoday

The fit of a mask is CRITICAL

IT MUST FIT TIGHTLY WITHOUT ANY GAPS.  It is critical that the respirator or mask fits properly to give you the best protection. 

If it does not fit properly, inhaled air will be pulled around the mask rather than filtered through it.

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Hi there!

I’m Becky, a former elementary school teacher turned certified child development therapist and blogger. I work at home with my husband and together we are raising (and partially homeschooling) our four children in the Carolinas. I love diet coke, ice cream, and spending time with my family.

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1 Comment

  1. Hey Becky, Thanks for sharing the mask respirators guide. And I totally agree with the point of the misconception people have that homemade masks, bandanas, and scarves will offer the same type of protection as an N95 mask. My sister is also using a homemade mask these days. I’ll definitely share this article with her so that she can understand that homemade masks are not that safe.