PPE: A Primer on N95

A N95 respirator face mask effectively filters outside substances.

With everyone and their mother making masks these days, questions abound regarding degree of protection and performance quality of materials and design. A recent panel discussion with NC State Wilson of College of Textiles staff offered a helpful primer on PPE that provides relevant info for today, as well as for a post-pandemic landscape.

For example, N95 has become common lingo in textile talk but many would be hard-pressed to define exactly what N95 stands for. A N95 respirator is a respiratory protective device designed to achieve a very close facial fit and very efficient filtration of airborne particles. The N95” designation means that when subjected to careful testing, the respirator blocks at least 95 percent of very small (0.3 micron) test particles.

The “N” stands for “Not resistant to oil,” and is an evaluation requirement for N95 masks, which is stricter than surgical masks, and has higher filtration efficiency.

N95 masks are tested at NIOSH Labs in Pittsburgh, PA. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is the U.S. federal agency responsible for conducting research and making recommendations for the prevention of work-related injury and illness. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is the parent agency.

All N95 level masks are made from nonwoven material in order to perform to regulation.

Respirator masks are considered to be PPE equipment by both the European Union and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), whereas surgical facemasks are classified as a medical device. Surgical masks provide sufficient protection when people are in direct contact and are produced by manufacturers such as 3M.

According to 2019 data, the size of the PPE market was 8.8B USD, projected to increase to 11.9B USD by 2024. That, however, was prior to the Covid19 pandemic, explained Marc Matthews, research associate, TPACC, Protective textiles apparel testing and design, Wilson College of Textiles, NCSU.

Matthews pointed out that use of PPE by the general public for daily wear is changing the nature of the marketplace. He cites a move away from disposable masks and toward re-usable products, as a critical factor, as well learning de-contamination methods to create a reusable system.

“Durability and wear conditions are what I see creating change going forward,” said Matthews. He added that a “protection vs. comfort factor” is an area to watch.