N95 Masks vs. Surgical Mask: What You Need to Know 

Dietrich Easter

n95 mask

Everyone is wondering about masks. What is the purpose of N95 masks and surgical masks? When should I use one or the other? Do they work?


Surgical masks are a fluid-resistant barrier that prevent exposure to body fluids and large droplets. N95 masks provide a tight-fitting barrier designed to filter 95% percent of particulates. 


If you're curious about the latest regulations and recommendations regarding masks and COVID, you can check in with the CDC and FDA.


Below, you'll find a straightforward article about the intended purpose for each of these masks. 


Regardless of your stance on masks, it's smart to have a foundational understanding of how these tools work. Like all medical gear, when used correctly, a mask can be helpful – when used incorrectly, they can cause harm.


Note: Anything you read below is only meant to offer perspective and shared knowledge. This is not meant to be a discussion about the legal implications of when and how you should wear masks.


Major Difference Between N95 and Surgical Masks 

N95 masks and surgical masks have distinct purposes. Below, we look at a rapid-fire list of differences between the two. 

surgical mask

N95 vs. surgical mask: 

  • Surgical masks will provide general protection from body fluids, like blood, saliva, and vomit. 
  • N95 masks are designed to form a tight seal around the face, offering protection from airborne pathogens - tuberculosis, covid, etc. 
  • Surgical masks are made to be disposable.
  • N95 are also designed to be disposable (however, some techniques have been suggested for safe reuse
  • Surgical masks are not equivalent to clothe masks (more later) 
  • N95 masks offer more protection overall.
  • N95 often requires special "fit testing," ensuring the seal works with the user. 


Okay, there's a lot more to both these masks. Hopefully, this overview gives you a reference point as we continue. 


What's an N95 Mask? 

N95 masks will filter out particles as small as 0.3 microns with 95% efficiency. The "N" in N95 stands for the mask's ability to resist oil. The "N" means that the N95 does not resist oil. 


There are several types of N95: 

  • Standard N95: Regulated by the USA and NIOSH. 
  • KN95: Chinese standard. Basically the same; however, the standards are slightly different (some might say lower). Both filter 95% of 0.3-micron particles. Here's an article on KN95 vs. N95


Also, here's a video explaining surgical masks vs. N95s vs. KN95s



N95s masks come in various shapes - there isn't one official shape. Some are longer and more narrow, some are dome-shaped, and others can fold easily. 


Let's talk about the times to consider wearing an N95 mask. 


When Should I Use an N95 Mask? 

The N95 will limit disease exposure to yourself and others. When used correctly, N95 masks will provide a solid level of respiratory-related protection. 


Here are some diseases that may warrant the use of N95 masks: 

  • Coronavirus 
  • Influenza 
  • Tuberculosis 


Traditionally, N95 masks are used in a healthcare setting, and these masks are designed to work as part of a system. Simply using an N95 mask by itself does not guarantee you are protected - as you could still touch your face with a dirty hand or adjust and remove your mask throughout the day. 


In the next section, we talk more about using an N95 within a system. 


How Do I Use an N95 Mask?  

If you're a healthcare worker, it's important to follow your local policies and procedures. Below, we share some guidelines for mask use - just know, these are not the gospel. 


Mask information is moving and changing. The below information is just a starting reference for using N95 masks. 


Steps to applying (also called donning) an N95 mask: 

  1. Wash hands: Before you prepare to apply your mask, washing your hands is essential. In fact, washing your hands is still one of the best ways to prevent disease. 
  2. Prepare your mask: Ensure you have a properly sized N95. Some come in several sizes: small, medium, large. Others are one size, but you may still need to adjust the straps and nose. 
  3. Location: Obviously, it's important to apply the mask in a safe area. In a hospital, you wouldn't want to walk into a sick person's room before applying the mask. 
  4. Place the mask over the face: Before using the straps, place the mask on the face. Then bring straps up over your head. Usually, the top strap rests above the ears, and the bottom strap below the ears - ensure the straps are pulling evenly on the face. 
  5. Seal test: Preferably with clean hands, cup your hands over the mask and inhale. If you feel leaks, adjust the mask. You should feel an even seal. 
  6. Don't touch the mask: After you've performed the seal test in a safe environment, you should not touch the mask again. You especially want to avoid touching the mask with dirty hands or while you're in the presence of sickness. 
  7. Remove mask: Before removing the mask, again, wash your hands. Also, don't remove the mask until you've exited the hazardous environment. Dispose of the mask or properly disinfect. 


These are some general guidelines. Remember, no manufacturer or governing body has made guarantees of safety while you use the N95. You must understand the mask and when and how to use it. 


Now, let's look at surgical masks. 


What's a Surgical Mask? 

A surgical mask is a multi-layered mask designed to protect the wearer from hazardous body fluids. The surgical mask is not the same thing as a clothe face masks. However, you will commonly hear the surgical mask called other names, like a medical mask or a face mask. 


Here are several parts of the surgical mask:  

  • Ear loops: Unlike the N95, which usually has two bands that connect behind the head, the surgical masks often have ear loops. 
  • Eye shield: Many surgical masks come with a face shield that extends up over the eyes. 
  • Polypropylene material: Typically, three layers create the mask portion. 
  • Noseband: Small wire over the nose. This wire allows you to form the mask on your face. 


The surgical mask does not provide a very tight fit, like the N95. 


Think of the surgical mask like a windshield on a motorcycle - it will keep the bugs out of your face (some) but doesn't provide the same protection as an enclosed vehicle. 


When Should I Use a Surgical Mask? 

Alright, now let's cover when you should wear a surgical mask. Though the surgical mask doesn't provide the same protection as the N95, the surgical mask can lower the amount of a disease you're exposed to. 


Here are several times to reach for the surgical mask: 

  • Anytime you're involved in a medical procedure is potential for contact with body fluids: Airway management, bleeding control, etc. 
  • To reduce the number of droplets you expel when you cough or sneeze
  • To reduce the number of foreign droplets, you inhale 


From someone working in the medical field, let me say - it's no fun having blood squirted into your face. It’s useful to keep some surgical facemasks around. 


How Do I Use a Surgical Mask? 

Applying a surgical mask is straightforward. However, there are several things you should know before applying. Nobody loves wearing a facemask, but if you're in a situation where it's necessary, you at least want the thing to work. 


Guidelines for using a surgical mask: 

  1. Wash hands: Touching the clean mask with dirty hands isn't a great idea. Keep your hands clean before applying the mask. And try not to touch the portion of the mask that contacts your face. 
  2. Open mask in a clean setting: Hopefully, you have the mask stored safely. Also, a surgical mask is made to be used and then disposed of. 
  3. Place the loop over the ears: Usually, the surgical mask has loops that extend over your ears. Some will have ties. 
  4. Shape noseband: Bend the noseband so it fits snuggly over the bridge of the nose. 
  5. Don't touch the mask: You must break the habit of touching and adjusting the surgical mask. Touching your face (even without a mask) leads to spreading more disease. 
  6. Wash or change: After about 4 hours (this depends on what you're doing) of constant use, consider washing (for cloth masks) or changing your surgical mask.


These are just guidelines. Some masks have different features, and some areas and organizations will have different policies for wearing your mask. 


Below, we answer some common questions about surgical masks and N95s. 



Can the N95 protect from COVID 19?  

When used correctly, the N95 offers some protection from COVID. There has been some thought that the coronavirus is small enough to pass through an N95, as the coronavirus is smaller than 0.3 microns. However, the coronavirus is virtually always attached to a larger droplet (about 1 micron in size), so N95s do offer protection against COVID.


Do Masks Work with Beards? 

In general, beards don't play well with masks. Especially for the N95, you may want to consider shaving a beard. This is the consensus. In practice, the type of beard and the type of mask will play a role in how much protection the mask provides. 


Final Words on Masks

Regardless if you need a mask, it’s important to understand their benefits and their downsides. Remember, masks alone will not protect against disease. However, combining masks with common sense practices like washing your hands and avoiding areas of disease can provide some protection.


As always, take any opportunity to get trained in first aid and emergency care. The more you know about diseases, the better you’ll understand masks.