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N95 vs. Surgical Masks: What to Wear When Air Pollution Is Bad

Wearing a mask not only protects you from COVID-19, but it also plays an important part in protecting your lungs and breathing system from the air pollution. This is why you should choose the masks that can best protect your health.

Areas in Thailand continue to experience fluctuating air quality index (AQI) levels. Cities such as Bangkok and Chiang Mai have recently been exposed to poor air quality levels, while Northern Thailand’s notorious “smoky season” is likely a few months away at best.

In this Pacific Prime Thailand article, we look at the differences between N95 vs. surgical masks, so you know what to wear when air pollution is bad.

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N95 vs. Surgical Masks: Understanding the Differences

While the pandemic situation is getting better, at least in Thailand, most people are still wearing a mask when in public places. However, air pollution in major cities remains high. It is not a bad idea to keep the mask on and choose the one that can offer the protections you need.

N95 and surgical masks are terms that are often used interchangeably. However, the difference between both types of masks isn’t always clear. Even though N95 and surgical masks can both be worn for protection against airborne particles, there are some differences you should be aware of:

N95 and Particulate Masks

Particulate masks are a type of respirator that have a similar shape to surgical masks. Since they’re designed to protect the wearer, they’re typically more closely fitting and feature fewer pleats. Some models may have a filtered exhalation valve. It can filter up to 90% of airborne particulates.

As the name suggests, N95 masks offer up to 95% filtration, which means they’re usually more difficult to breathe through. What’s more, industrial respirators such as N95s leave almost no gap to ensure the mask fits as tightly against the face as possible for optimal protection.

Respirators also use a much denser filtering material than surgical masks to protect against germs and PM2.5 particulate pollution, including:

  • Vehicle exhaust
  • Woodsmokes fire
  • Industrial and agricultural emissions

While respirators do safeguard against germs and viruses, the wearer will experience more inhalation resistance than with a regular mask. Therefore, it’s advisable to stick to regular face masks if respirators are not necessary.

N95 and non-medical particulate masks are better for protection against short-term exposure and keeping others safe from your own coughs and sneezes.

Surgical masks

Surgical masks are ideal for settings where airborne pathogens are common, such as doctor’s offices and hospitals. While surgical masks do prevent viruses and bacteria from leaving your body through bodily fluids, they don’t offer much help from entering it.

Since these masks are designed to stop water droplets, they usually offer a looser, more comfortable fit. Additionally, the gaps between your skin and the edges of the cover make the mask less effective at safeguarding against lightweight, smaller particles.

Which Mask Should You Be Wearing?

Now that you know the differences between N95 masks and surgical masks, it’s time to learn more about which one is more suitable for you in order to protect yourself from the air pollution.

Should you wear a N95 mask?

Since N95 masks are made to protect a wearer from small particles, they offer better protection than the surgical masks. If you live in areas that have poor air quality or if you are in a vulnerable group, N95s are ideal.

N95s can be uncomfortable to wear for an extended period of time though they are more expensive than surgical masks. Fortunately, there are various N95 options for you to choose from including the reusable ones.

Instead of using N95 masks, you can either use disposable surgical masks or, better yet, reusable filtering face masks. Investing in a good quality filtering mask is ideal for those who are exposed to hazardous air quality regularly.

Should you wear a surgical mask?

Even though a surgical mask cannot filter out the small particles in the air, it can provide some level of protection against the PM2.5 and other less severe pollution if properly worn. It is also a good idea to wear it while you are indoors.

Proper Way to Wear a Mask

To ensure proper usage of the surgical mask, it is essential to follow the recommended steps:

  • Place the mask over your nose and mouth, ensuring that it covers both areas entirely
  • Utilize the metal strap present at the top of the mask to form a seal around your nose.
  • Verify that there are no gaps between your face and the mask.
  • Adjust the metal strip to conform to the shape of your nose for a secure fit.

A word of caution

Fashionable masks, such as those with lots of embroidery and sequins, may also be ineffective shields, while masks made from meshy fabric or holey cloth can also pose risks.

Although valved masks can filter out hazardous air, it also makes it possible for fine particles and germs to enter, including the novel coronavirus. It’s also quite easy for the wearer to spread the infection onto others with this type of mask.

Why You Should Be Wearing a Mask

According to The World Health Organization (WHO), more than 4.2 million die prematurely yearly. The use of a mask, when exposed to poor air quality, can provide various benefits in protecting against and mitigating the health impacts of PM2.5, such as:

  • Reduce respiratory issues
  • Help protect your cardiovascular system
  • Reduce the risks of pregnancy complications
  • Reduce the number of premature deaths

Proper Cleaning of Reusable Masks

Properly washing, disinfecting, and handling reusable masks is a must. If you’re wearing a reusable cloth mask or a reusable N95, be sure to wash it daily. Even though it can be time-consuming to wash your masks after each use, it’s crucial to prevent germ transmission.

Have several face masks available so you can rotate them and have a clean mask ready to go. Before and after washing the mask, wash your hands for 20 seconds or longer with warm water and soap. Make sure the mask is completely dry before storing it as well.

Proper Disposal of Used Face Masks

If you’re using a disposable mask, properly discard it after wear by following these steps:

  • Discard a mask in a closed bin
  • Wash your hands with soap or use an alcohol hand sanitizer after touching used masks
  • If you are disposing multiple masks, put them in a bag and seal it properly
  • When disposing of a cloth mask, clean it with soap and water first.

What Else Can You Do to Protect Yourself?

Masks are certainly a good option to protect yourself against air pollution, but the most effective way to stay safe from hazardous air quality is to stay indoors. Monitor the AQI for your area through air quality monitoring apps like Air Visual or even your own device.

When the air quality worsens to the point of affecting your health, you should shut the windows and doors, and turn on the air conditioner if possible. If you must leave your windows open, do what you can to reduce indoor air pollution. Some things you should avoid include:

  • Burning candles
  • Smoking
  • Cooking on gas stoves
  • Vacuuming or dusting

You can also invest in a mechanical air cleaner or air purifier with a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter to effectively reduce indoor particle levels. Cleaning out vents and damp areas inside the home and growing air-purifying plants can also help keep the air in your home healthy.

Stay healthy with Pacific Prime Thailand

If you’re living in Bangkok, you’ll want to ensure you’re protected when air pollution is at its worst. Along with investing in an effective face mask, you should also invest in an individual health insurance plan, or a family health insurance plan if you’re here with loved ones. That way, you can have access to private healthcare without being left with hefty hospital bills.

Our team of expert advisors at Pacific Prime Thailand can help you find the best health insurance in Thailand for your needs and budget. Contact us for impartial advice or to compare health insurance plans for free!

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Senior Copywriter at Pacific Prime Thailand
Jantra Jacobs is a Senior Copywriter at Pacific Prime with over 10 years of writing and editing experience. She writes and edits a diverse variety of online and offline copy, including sales and marketing materials ranging from articles and advertising copy to reports, guides, RFPs, and more.

Jantra curates and reports on the results of Pacific Prime’s monthly newsletters, as well as manages Pacific Prime’s Deputy Global CEO’s LinkedIn posts. Complemented by her background in business writing, Jantra’s passion for health, insurance, and employee benefits helps her create engaging content - no matter how complex the subject is.

Growing up as a third-culture kid has given her a multicultural perspective that helps her relate to expats and their families while 8 years of working remotely have given her unique insight into hybrid work arrangements and enthusiasm for employee benefits.
Jantra Jacobs