Particles are one of the two most commons concerns when looking for a personal filtration device like a mask. From pollen and dust to pet dander and soot, particles are a part of everyday life, but for those affected by severe allergies or asthma, these can make life miserable. The best type of particle filtration, in most instances, is going to be a HEPA filter. A true HEPA filter traps 99.97% of all particles 0.3 microns or larger. This size encompasses most dust, pollen, and dander particles as well as many bacteria and viruses. While a HEPA filter can cost more, it offers the most comprehensive particle filtration available.
Within the broad category of particle filtration, there are also NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) rating. NIOSH sets standards of filtration that help to determine how effective a mask/respirator is when filtering certain sizes of particles. Masks with a 100 rating, for instance P100 or N100, offer HEPA grade filtration. The most common classification is N95. Devices with this rating trap 95% of particles 0.3 microns or larger. This class is the minimum recommended by the CDC (Center for Disease Control) to help prevent the spread of airborne illnesses like influenza. There are other levels of classification but these two will cover most people's needs.
The second most common need, when it comes to personal filtration, is chemicals/smoke/odors. While some particles that make up chemical fumes, smoke, exhaust or odors can and will be trapped by particle filter media, like those described above, many will simply pass through this type of media. To trap these types of pollutants, the most common types of media are activated carbon or charcoal.
Activated carbon/charcoal is as it sounds, is a charcoal-like substance that has been "activated" by using oxygen to open up millions of tiny fissures and pores in the substance. The activation process dramatically increases the surface area and allows it to trap far great amounts of chemical and vapor pollutants. This type of media "adsorbs" chemicals, odors and fragrances, meaning the polluting particles will actually adhere or attach to the filter media and not pass through with the air you breathe. Most filters cannot contain very much carbon simply due to size constraints, but even a very thin layer will remove nuisance level pollutants for most people.
Some masks or respirators will contain one or both types of this filter media, so determining what you are trying to filter out is the first step in narrowing your search. In addition to the filter media there are a variety of other concerns/questions that can help guide your decision.
Are "natural" or organic materials a priority? There are a variety of organic cotton masks on the market that use a few simple materials, but often the drawback with these can be that the filtration is not as efficient as synthetic filter media. Still, for some who has severe reactions to a wide range of chemicals pollutants, an organic mask could be a better alternative than using an item directly over your mouth and nose that could make your original problem worse.
Most masks do not contain latex. So while many will use rubber or synthetic latex that will not cause an allergic reaction, it is still worth asking about prior to deciding. Sizing is another common concern. Most respirators are designed as one-size-fits-all or have 2-4 broad sizing categories. A proper fit is important in obtaining a good seal around the face and nose and ensures that the air you are breathing is passing through the filter media. Lastly, some person filtration devices have replaceable filters while others are disposable. Balance cost vs. how often you plan on using the mask to help guide your decision in this regard.
Getting the right mask can be tricky, and getting the right fit can make all the difference between effective relief and throwing your money away. While these are not the only factors to consider when looking for a mask or respirator, going through these few guidelines can help you dramatically narrow your choices and make selecting the right mask easier.
Written by: Kevin Gilmore
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