Why you shouldn't wear a N95 mask when you travel
- Many airlines and a growing number of airports are requiring that passengers wear face masks when they fly but not all masks are as effective as most people think.
- The N95 mask, while believed to be the gold standard, actually has some flaws when used outside of the healthcare setting.
- The average user isn't likely wearing a fitted mask, reducing its effectiveness, and an N95 mask with a vent is useless in protecting others.
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As more airlines begin to ditch the blocking middle seat strategy, one standard remains clear across the board around the world: face masks must be worn when flying.
Recent US government and Harvard University School of Public Health studies attribute the face mask requirement for low onboard transmission rates on aircraft, more so than blocking middle seats. Airlines such as Southwest Airlines have cited the effectiveness of mask-wearing and onboard high-efficiency particulate air filters, or HEPA filters, when choosing to fill their planes over blocking seats.
But not all masks are created equal and flyers should carefully choose which one they pack for their next trip, especially as the holiday travel season quickly approaches. One mask to be avoided is actually the popular N95 mask, according to Dr. Salvatore Pardo, the chair of emergency medicine at Northwell Health's Long Island Jewish Valley Stream Hospital.
Though thought to be the gold standard of masks to protect yourself from contracting the virus, Pardo pointed out numerous flaws in how the public has adopted the mask, in an interview with Business Insider.
Here's you should consider a different mask on your next flight.
You're likely not protecting anybody, including yourself
In an ideal scenario, the N95 protects the wearer against potential pathogens in the air thanks to its "very efficient filtration of airborne particles," according to the US Food and Drug Administration. Doctors use the mask in a healthcare setting to protect themselves for that reason, as a loose disposable or cloth mask doesn't provide the same level of protection to the wearer.
In the current pandemic, however, the worst kind of N95 mask you can wear to protect others, according to Pardo, is one with a vent, port, or valve in front. While intended to make it easier to breathe, those apparatuses expel air without filtering it, posing a danger to those around the wearer.
"That is basically a one-way valve that allows anything that you exhale to leave the mask easily," Pardo said.
Those masks go against the principles behind mask-wearing in that you're supposed to be protecting others, not necessarily yourself. For example, you could be asymptomatic and unknowingly spreading the virus, which the mask prevents against.
With the vented N95 masks, however, the air being exhaled isn't filtered, leading to a false sense of security. A user might think they're being safe and protecting others while, in fact, they're doing more harm than good.
Using a vented N95 mask, Pardo said, is equivalent to "wearing nothing." Some airlines have specifically banned masks with valves or vents for this reason.
It likely isn't fitted properly to completely protect you
Doctors that wear N95 masks in a medical setting need to have their masks fitted before they can use them and then they are refitted on a yearly basis, as well as every time a new mask is introduced in the hospital. Fittings help ensure a protective seal is formed between the mask and the face so that all outside air is forced through the mask, filtering out airborne pathogens.
The general public outside of the healthcare setting does not have access to mask fittings. And as most N95 users aren't wearing fitted masks, the purpose is negated entirely as unfiltered air can enter through the cracks and potentially expose the wearer to the coronavirus.
It's also one of the reasons why the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends that they only be used by medical professionals. "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not recommend that the general public wear N95 respirators to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including coronavirus (COVID-19)," the public health agency warns on its website.
The mask does provide more protection than a standard disposable or cloth mask in that it blocks small and large particles, according to the Mayo Clinic, including 95% of very small particles. But wearers won't reap the mask's full benefits unless it's fitted.
The CDC also recommends against using the masks, fitted or unfitted, if the user has facial hair since that can also block the seal between the mask and the face. Pardo said doctors that use the mask aren't allowed to have facial hair.
Doubling up with a second mask might get uncomfortable
While one solution would be to wear a cloth or disposable mask on top of an N95 with a vent, the N95 mask still won't be entirely useful unless it's fitted. A fitted N95 mask with a vent worn under a cloth or disposable mask would, in fact, be useful to protect the wearer and others.
However, N95 masks are also uncomfortable when worn for extended periods of time, according to Pardo, so stacking an additional mask on top of one would only increase that level of discomfort and encourage people to take off their masks more frequently.
As for which mask is best when traveling, the cloth mask or disposable mask, Pardo says the disposable mask is his preference since they can be easily replaced. But either mask will work just fine when traveling, as long as their clean and dry.
One mask should suffice for a flight, regardless of its length, but travellers should pack multiple masks – whether disposable or cloth – so they can always have an effective mask on hand.
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