For the 50+ Traveler

N95 respirators and KN95 masks have become familiar household terms since the COVID-19 pandemic. Generally, people know that N95 respirators are considered to be the most protective face coverings and KN95 masks are a step below. However, many are not familiar with how these popular types of face coverings are differentiated. The N95 respirators and KN95 masks have different minimum certification requirements and provide varying levels of self-protection correlated to this. Read on to find out the differences between N95 and KN95 masks and which should be chosen for flying and other travel activities.

N95 Respirator Masks

N95MaskCo Respokare® NIOSH N95 Respirator Mask 5-pack

N95 respirator masks are National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health- (NIOSH) approved facepiece designed for air filtration around the mouth and nose. These face coverings received their (now) household name, "N95", from their NIOSH N95 air filtration classification, meaning these masks effectively filter at least 95% of airborne particles. All authentic N95 respirators are marked with the NIOSH stamp, the filter class (N95), a 7-digit approval number that corresponds to the NIOSH Certified Equipment List, and are outfitted with headbands instead of ear loops. It is important to note that other countries have different minimum standards, so these standards only apply to NIOSH-tested respirators.

The correct identifier of N95 face coverings is the term "respirator," not "mask". "Respirator" is an exclusive term given only to those face coverings that protect the wearer from airborne particles and are designed to seal as tightly as possible to the face. Masks, on the other hand, are traditionally designed more as a barrier to droplets and spit. N95 respirators also need to be cleaned meticulously and are constructed for very few re-uses in order to keep the secure fit intact.

Each N95 respirator requires a very specific design, consisting of fine mesh synthetic polymer fibers. Each is then created by melt blowing, which involves combining a polymer melt with high-speed blowing gas to form the nonwoven sheet on the inner filtration layer that filters out hazardous particles. This secure design has made the N95 respirators a necessary piece of personal protective equipment for medical professionals and those in industrial work, especially painters, miners, and construction workers.

N95 Surgical Respirators

N95 respirators cleared for medical use are labeled "Surgical N95" on each mask and are to be used in medical settings only. However, exceptions have been made during crises and shortages, including the COVID-19 Pandemic, to allow medical professionals to use industrial-grade N95 respirators when their surgical stash is depleted. In addition to the air filtration specifications, surgical N95 respirators also require meeting a minimum fluid-resistant certification, measured by testing the mask's resistance to a stream of artificial blood.

Editor's Note: At the time of publishing, the CDC recommends that the general public does not wear N95 respirators during daily activities in order to conserve the low level of critical supplies for the medical professionals during the COVID-19 pandemic. Please check the CDC’s official website for more information.

KN95 Masks

N95MaskCo KN95 Face Mask 20-pack

Remember when we mentioned that other countries have different standards for certifying respirators? Well, KN95 respirators are the face coverings that meet China's minimum level of air filtration control but are not regulated by NIOSH standards in the United States. In a recent study, the non-profit group ECRI, or the Emergency Care Research Institute, tested approximately 200 randomly selected masks across multiple brands and determined that 60-70% of them did not meet the 95% airborne particle filtration minimum required by NIOSH for N95 respirators.

However, considering N95 is the highest standard when it comes to airborne filtration, do not dismiss the protective qualities of KN95 masks! While the KN95s are not NIOSH-approved, they are CDC and FDA-approved. The correct term for KN95 face coverings is also "respirator," as they still offer an effective face filtration system. In a recent test conducted by 3M, it was determined that KN95 respirators have a total inward leakage, or TIL, of less than or equal to 8% compared to 0% from the tested N95 respirators. The TIL percentage is determined by the amount of a specific aerosol that enters the tested respirator facepiece via both filter penetration and face seal leakage.

Similar to the N95, KN95 respirators are designed with a 3-layer filtration system and a tight-fit adjustable noseband. As previously mentioned, they are not NIOSH- nor Nelson Lab-approved, and they are outfitted with more flexible ear loops versus the headbands required on N95s. The CDC understands the different standards are easily confused by the general public, so they conducted independent tests on multiple KN95 brands to determine efficacy and published easy-to-follow results by brand here.

N95 Vs. KN95: Comparison By The Numbers

n95 and kn95 masks

One of the best mask type explanation graphs we've found is the N95 Mask Co comparison graph, which evaluated their Respokare N95 respirators, standard NIOSH N95 respirators, KN95 respirators, 3-ply masks, and cloth masks across 14 key metrics. Not surprisingly, both of the N95 product options are the highest-rated across these metrics, including being the only face coverings that are NIOSH-approved, Nelson Labs-tested, and medical-grade. However, their KN95 respirator still boasts high evaluations, including being FDA- and CDC-approved and proven to block up to 95% of airborne particles.

Which Mask Is Best For Traveling?

So, what mask, or respirator, should be chosen for travel? Traditionally, N95 respirators are the safest option for flying on airplanes since it's imperative to have the highest level of air filtration and protection while sharing recycled air with strangers for hours. Plus, no matter where you reside, face coverings are currently required in all airports and airplanes. In fact, the N95 Mask Co Respokare has 4-layer protection, above and beyond the NIOSH required 3-layers, capable of securing and blocking 95% of particles as small as 0.3 microns. In addition, this face covering inactivates up to. 99.9% of particles within minutes to further decrease human-to-human airborne transmission of 18 common seasonal and pandemic viruses, as well as an extended range of other bacteria, fungi, and pathogens. As required by all certified N95s, these masks are designed to stay securely fashioned to the wearer's face to avoid unintentional slipping while maneuvering throughout and hours spent on the plane.

However, for regular activities once arrived at the chosen destination, the KN95 mask is an excellent option. As noted, the CDC currently advises the general public to allow for a plentiful supply of N95 respirators to be used solely by medical professionals. When navigating outdoor and easily social-distanced areas, the KN95 is sufficient protection and suitable as an equivalent option according to both 3M and the CDC. The N95 Mask Co KN95 respirator has been tested and approved to filter up to 95% of non-oil airborne particles as microscopic as 0.3 microns. Their particular design is rounded and has a thicker surface versus some competitor rectangular KN95 masks that tend to be thinner and only filter down to the 10-micron level. In addition, the KN95 is the more comfortable option for all-day wearing because it is flexible, lightweight, has ample breathing room, and includes flexible ear loops versus the N95's headband.

Although traveling and flying may be rocky waters to navigate at the moment, be prepared when you do. The N95 Mask Co collection, ranging from the highest-rated N95 respirators to basic everyday cloth masks, will supply everything needed for a comfortable and, most importantly, safe and healthy, travel experience.

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The information found on TravelAwaits is intended for informational and educational purposes only and not for the purpose of rendering medical advice. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions regarding a medical condition.