Why most of us should be wearing N95 masks

The short answer: Because they’re the most protective, and they’re finally widely available.

N95 respirators have long been the best disposable face coverings for protection against airborne viruses, but until recently, they were scarce.

When worn properly, N95s can filter out at least 95 percent of particles in the air, including the virus that causes covid-19. Only pricey air-purifying respirators or hazmat suits offer better protection.

Straps around the crown of the head and below the ears are crucial to ensure the respirator fits tightly.

A flexible nose clamp helps form

a tight seal.

Fit is critical so that air flows through the mask and not around the edges.

Straps around the crown of the head and below the ears are crucial to ensure the respirator fits tightly.

A flexible nose clamp helps form

a tight seal.

Fit is critical so that air flows through the mask and not around the edges.

Straps around the crown of the head and below the ears are crucial to ensure the respirator fits tightly.

A flexible nose clamp helps form a tight seal.

Fit is critical so that air flows through the mask and not around the edges.

Straps around the crown of the head and below the ears are crucial to ensure the respirator fits tightly.

A flexible nose clamp helps form a tight seal.

Fit is critical so that air flows through the mask

and not around the edges.

Early in the pandemic, the U.S. stock of N95s was too depleted even to meet the sudden, dire needs of front-line health-care workers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told us to save the most protective masks for essential workers and sew our own.

After two years of ramped-up production, high-quality N95s are widely available to consumers, and the Strategic National Stockpile contains more than 750 million.

Some experts recommended that more people wear them after the delta variant emerged last summer, and on Jan. 14, the CDC updated its recommendations to tout their effectiveness and remove caveats about short supply. The White House plans to give away 400 million N95s in the next few weeks to help stifle the spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant of the novel coronavirus.

How N95 masks work

N95s come in several shapes and carry a mark from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to show that they are authentic. Some look like domes, others a bit like duck bills. This flat-fold, three-panel type is popular in hospitals.

The soft, flexible outer layers of the mask are designed to protect the most important part of the respirator: the filter inside.

Under a microscope, you can see what makes the filter unique.

N95

fibers

The soft, flexible outer layers of the mask are designed to protect the most important part of the respirator: the filter inside.

Under a microscope, you can see what makes the filter unique.

N95

fibers

The soft, flexible outer layers of the mask are designed to protect the most important part of the respirator: the filter inside.

Under a microscope, you can see what makes the filter unique.

N95

fibers

The soft, flexible outer layers of the mask are designed to protect the most important part of the respirator: the filter inside.

Under a microscope, you can see what makes the filter unique.

N95

fibers

It is made of polypropylene fibers that are 1/50th the size of a human hair, blown together in a random web to create an obstacle course for particles.

Air flows in and out of the microscopic spaces between the fibers, allowing the wearer to breathe.

N95

fibers

Air

flow

Air

flow

N95

fibers

N95

fibers

Air

flow

N95

fibers

Air

flow

The fibers carry an electrostatic charge that attracts passing particles like a magnet. Large particles bump into the fibers and easily become trapped. The more particles are captured, the denser and more effective the fibers become.

Electrostatic

charge

Large

particles

Electrostatic

charge

Large

particles

Electrostatic

charge

Large

particles

Electrostatic

charge

Large

particles

The tiniest particles can move between fibers, but they are constantly jostled by air molecules. All that pinging around makes them likely to eventually hit a fiber and become trapped as well.

Small

particles

Small

particles

Small

particles

Small particles

The most difficult particles to capture are small enough to slip between fibers but stout enough that they don’t bounce around a lot. Coronaviruses typically fit into this midsize category. However, the electrostatic charge is effective at grabbing particles of all sizes out of the air.

Electrostatic

charge captures

medium

particles

Electrostatic

charge captures

medium

particles

Electrostatic

charge captures

medium particles

Electrostatic

charge captures

medium particles

Who should not wear an N95?

Nearly everyone over age 2 needs to wear a mask in at least some situations, but the CDC stopped short of recommending that everyone switch to N95s, saying basically that the best mask for you is one that fits well and that you’ll wear consistently.

For instance, if you find N95s uncomfortable, or you prefer ear loops to head straps, maybe you’re willing to sacrifice a bit of protection.

According to the CDC, well-fitting N95s are the most protective, followed by KN95s and surgical masks. Chinese-made KN95s are supposed to be of a standard comparable to N95s, and many are of high quality, but they do not go through the NIOSH approval process. “Loosely woven cloth coverings” are the least protective.

On Parenting: How to choose a mask for your child

Beware of the many counterfeit N95s and KN95s on the market. The CDC website has a list of approved models and examples of counterfeits. There are no NIOSH-approved N95s for children, although some manufacturers claim their products meet N95 standards. Children under 2 should not wear masks at all, and people with certain disabilities may not tolerate them.

For everyone else who wants one, there should be enough N95s to go around.

Jessica Contrera contributed to this report. Illustrations use photographs shot by Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: Vaccines: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone age 12 and older get an updated coronavirus booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant circulating now. You’re eligible for the shot if it has been at least two months since your initial vaccine or your last booster. An initial vaccine series for children under 5, meanwhile, became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

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