What are N95 and FFP2 face masks and do you really need them?
Interest in N95 masks is surging. With more transmissible Covid-19 variants circulating in dozens of countries, some people are feeling the need for extra protection. But what extra protection do they provide compared to cloth masks and, crucially, should you buy one? Here's what you need to know.
What are N95 and FFP2 face masks?
N95 and FFP2 are similar kinds of respiratory masks. These masks supposedly protect both the wearer and people around them. The World Health Organisation cites studies which show the filtration systems of FFP2 and N95 masks are 94 and 95 per cent effective respectively. Their enhanced effectiveness has led to countries such as Austria and Germany making them a requirement on public transport. FFP3 masks are the most effective, followed by FFP2/N95, then surgical masks and, finally, cloth masks.
What is in N95 and FFP2 face masks?
So what makes these respiratory masks so good at filtration compared to surgical or cloth masks? FFP2 masks are defined as being composed of three layers of synthetic non-woven materials, available in different thicknesses, with the inclusion of filtration layers between.
It’s this combination of factors that lead to those strong results. But, 94 to 95 per cent of what? This figure is achieved by testing masks using NaCl (sodium chloride) particles and paraffin oil – this is only for FFP2 testing, with the N95 certification process only testing using NaCl. While standard medical masks only filter three micrometre droplets, FFP2 respirator masks filter down to 0.075 micrometre solid particles. The masks are then tested by seeing what percentage of these small particles make it through and, in the case of getting FFP2 certification, only six per cent or less can do so.
Can I buy N95 and FFP2 face masks?
In the case of N95 masks, you can. But you shouldn’t. N95 masks receive this certification in the US and, as such, are not certified in Europe.
There are equivalents around the globe including a standard that is certified in Europe and available in the UK – the FFP2 mask. FFP2 simply stands for “filtering face piece”, with the number indicating the level of protection. Some FFP masks also come with “NR” at the end of their name, and this means “not reusable”.
FFP2 and N95 face masks are not exactly the same, but studies show that there is no material difference between their effectiveness.
This said, the World Health Organisation does not recommend the use of FFP2 for everyone, stating that non-medical face masks should be used by the general public under the age of 60 who do not have underlying health conditions.
FFP2 masks are best used by health workers or those caring for someone who may have Covid-19 in a community setting. If you feel you need the extra protection then FFP2 face masks are now available at buy from some retailers. Here’s a selection, none of which WIRED has tested.