Will an N95 or a surgical mask protect you from haze?

As smoke from Sumatran fires engulfs Singapore, more and more people are getting masked up to protect themselves from the haze.

Surgical and N95 respirator masks are selling fast or have already been sold out in stores nationwide. But will either of them be sufficient protection?

Particles in haze can increase a person’s risk of developing viral and bacterial infections, heart and lung diseases, cancer and stroke.

According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), particles less than 10 micrometers are dangerous when inhaled and accumulated in the respiratory system. Due to their small size, these particles can “lodge deeply into the lungs”, the agency said on its website.

N95 respirator mask

According to the Health Promotion Board,  haze particles are predominantly made up of fine particles that are 2.5 micrometers or smaller, and that N95 masks are efficient against fine particles that are about 0.1 – 0.3 microns.

“It protects at least 95 per cent of PM 2.5 (particulate matter 2.5), which causes the most harm during the haze,” Dr Lee Yeow Hian, a respiratory physician from Mount Elizabeth Novena, said in a phone interview with Yahoo! Singapore.

The N95 respirator mask also provides the tightest fit to the face and users can ensure this by adjusting its straps, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration website (FDA).

It should be used depending on “health status, PSI level, physical exertion and time spent outdoors”, according to a health advisory by the Ministry of Health (MOH).

Those with chronic respiratory, cardiac or other medical conditions that affect the respiratory system should consult a healthcare provider before using them as the mask can require more effort to breathe, according to FDA.

The respirators are not suitable for children as it does not provide a proper fit for them.

They are also unsuitable for those with facial hair, which disrupts the contact of the mask to the skin.

Dr Lee said, “The masks need to make a direct contact with the skin in order for it to have a proper fit. Having a beard will prevent this because the smoke can still go through the hair.”

“Since we can’t try the face masks on before buying, I suggest everybody to buy a few first to find the perfect fit before stocking up,” he added. “Keep using the face mask until it gets dirty or wet and make sure you do not fold it, otherwise, it no longer provides a proper seal.”

According to MOH, there is sufficient stock of N95 masks nationally to meet anticipated needs, and that “N95 masks should be bought only when needed, there is no need to stockpile”.

It also said that masks can be found at large retail/pharmacy chains such as Guardian, Unity, Cold Storage and Giant and more stocks will be made available by Friday evening.

The government also reported on its "Emergency 101" website that 7,000 and 21,000 masks have been distributed to Unity and Guardian, respectively, on Friday afternoon.

How to make sure the N95 mask fits


The Health Promotion Board has provided a simple guide to wearing the N95 respirator mask on its website.

 

Surgical face masks

The surgical face mask, also labeled as dental or medical procedure mask, is not as effective as the N95 mask. According to Dr Lee, it “doesn’t work”.

"The surgical masks are not designed to block any particles," he said, adding that it is only effective when preventing the spread of germs from those having flu or cough.

Surgical face masks are loose-fitting and only filter large particle droplets such as splashes, sprays or splatter, according to the FDA.

Due to the loose fit between the mask and the face, it does not provide “complete protection” from small particles in the air such as germs, the agency said.

However, since N95 masks are increasingly difficult to get hold of due to its brisk demand, Dr Lee said that using a surgical mask is “better than nothing”.

N95 masks can be bought from retail stores such as Guardian Pharmacy and Watsons.

Bandanas and tissues

For those without surgical facemasks and N95 respirator masks, and have resorted to putting on bandanas and tissues, dust and smoke particles can still go through the materials, said Dr Lee.

If no masks are available, Dr Lee advised people to stay indoors and reduce “exposure” to the smoke.

The MOH has also provided details of a medical scheme for those young and elderly affected by the haze. Details of subsidies can be found here.