Best N95 Masks

Updated February 2022
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Buying guide for Best N95 masks

Whether for a smokey wildfire, influenza outbreak, or dusty cleanup operation, one of the most important pieces of personal protection equipment might also seem like the least obvious: a proper respirator or dust mask. Many of us seek out this first line of defense for sitting in a hospital waiting room, mowing lawns, or living in areas where wildfires are common. One of the most affordable types of general-purpose respirator masks is known by its National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) rating: N95. These masks, available in a wide variety of designs and colors, all serve the same purpose: to prevent pollen, dust, smoke, and viruses from entering the body through the respiratory system.

N95 masks are often distributed in bulk during outbreaks of communicable diseases or certain types of natural disasters. Many companies keep a supply of N95 masks on hand to protect employees and visitors from the hazards of dust or dry chemicals produced on factory floors.

If you’re searching for the best N95 masks available today, we urge shoppers to determine their needs before committing to a specific type of protective gear, as individual respiration or dust mask requirements vary.

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N95 masks are very popular during flu outbreaks because they block most influenza viruses from entering the wearer’s lungs, as well as filter the wearer’s expelled air.

N95 mask features to consider

When shopping for a supply of N95 masks, there are a number of important considerations. Some companies may already require respiration or dust masks with a specific NIOSH rating, such as R99 or P100. An N95 mask does not repel oil vapors, which means it may not provide as much respiratory protection in a chemical plant as it would in a hospital waiting room, for example. Here are some important elements to consider before investing in a supply of N95 masks.

NIOSH rating

Some inexpensive respirators or dust masks do not carry NIOSH approval. These masks might look perfectly safe, but without the proper certification, it would be difficult to know the level of protection they provide. An approved N95 mask filters out at least 95% of particulates larger than 0.3 microns in diameter. Avoid buying masks without proper NIOSH certification.

When shopping for N95 masks, it is important to remember that “N95” is an industrial rating, not a design standard. Different manufacturers produce models for specific purposes, such as dust and allergen protection, virus exposure reduction, and smoke inhalation. In other words, there are numerous types of face masks/respirators legally called N95 that vary widely in design and function.

Good positive and negative pressure

A quality N95 mask needs to form a tight seal around your lower face to be effective. This seal can be tested for both positive and negative pressure. When the wearer inhales deeply, a properly fitted N95 mask should draw inward. This indicates good negative pressure. When the wearer exhales, the respirator valve should open smoothly. This is an indication of good positive pressure. An inferior N95 mask will allow too much unfiltered air to enter or exit through the sides of the mask.

  • Respirator valve: A typical N95 mask provides both negative and positive pressure while in use. The mask’s filters are responsible for the negative pressure of inhalation but aren’t as effective for exhalation. Many manufacturers improve positive pressure by including a one-way respirator valve designed to enable users to breath out more easily but not reduce the effectiveness of negative pressure on the filter. A respirator valve isn’t an essential feature for casual users (visitors to an emergency room, for instance), but it is especially useful for those who need to wear the mask for hours at a time.
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Did you know?
The “N” in N95 refers to its non-resistance to oil-based vapors. Other designations include “R” for oil-resistant mask or “P” for oil-proof mask.

Secure and adjustable

Many N95 masks subscribe to the “one size fits most” philosophy, but the better options provide ways to customize the overall fit. When shopping for N95 masks in bulk, look for such elements as metallic nose pieces and an adjustable double strapping system. A good candidate won’t fit like a Halloween mask, with a single strap attaching the mask to the user’s face.

  • Soft metallic nose piece: Creating an air-tight seal is an important factor when using an N95 mask, and most models employ a malleable metal nose piece that users can customize to their facial contours. The nosepiece should be flexible enough to form a secure fit around the top of the mask. Some masks also incorporate soft padding around this nose piece to improve user comfort.

  • Adjustable elastic straps: The better N95 mask designs often use adjustable elastic straps with multiple points of contact with the mask. The wearer should be able to anchor these straps behind the ears and tighten or loosen them as necessary. The ultimate goal is to form an air-tight seal that prevents dust and other contaminants from penetrating the mask.

Multiple layering

An N95 mask needs to provide a wide range of protection for different users, which means it must be able to filter different types of particulate matter. This requires that manufacturers employ multiple layers, all designed to filter out specific contaminants. Multiple layering is a common selling point, especially if the mask includes activated carbon filtration for improved smoke protection or medical-grade mesh for advanced virus protection.

  • Carbon filters: The addition of special carbon-based filters is not a universal standard, but it can be a very useful feature under certain conditions. The activated charcoal can absorb and neutralize some biological contaminants and control unpleasant odors from smoke or chemical dust. These carbon filters, which may or may not be replaceable, are generally found on higher-end models.

  • Multiple filtering layers: One popular selling point with N95 masks is the number of protective layers between the user and the outside environment. Some of the least expensive models only offer one or two layers of protection, but these still meet the basic N95 standard. When looking for the absolute best N95 masks available, however, you should consider the number and quality of filtering layers incorporated into the product.
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Facial hair such as beards and moustaches can seriously affect the quality of the seal around an N95 mask. These masks work best on smooth skin. If shaving is not an option, consider using a different style of dust mask.


Q. I have really bad pollen allergies. Will an N95 mask help me while I mow the lawn or do other outside work?

A. An N95 respirator dust mask should provide sufficient protection against most common forms of backyard pollen and allergens, since these masks are designed to filter out any particles larger than 0.3 microns in diameter. However, the overall effectiveness of any dust mask depends largely on the quality of the seal. Make sure you test both the negative and positive pressure (essentially, breath in and out) to make sure dust and pollen cannot enter through the mask’s edges.

Q. I work in an office, but occasionally I have to visit the factory floor to speak with a foreman. Should I wear an N95 mask for protection?

A. Many companies have established safety protocols that determine what protective gear employees need to wear while in certain areas, which might include a NIOSH-approved N95 dust mask. If the environment also contains oil vapor or other chemicals, your employer could require a mask rated for oil resistance or a higher particulate count, such as R99 or P100. The N95 mask is a good all-around dust mask, but it isn’t necessarily the best choice for some environments.

Q. I live in an area prone to forest fires. Will an N95 mask protect me from the hazardous smoke and ash?

A. In most situations, an N95 respirator mask should provide enough protection against prolonged breathing of smoke and ash particles. It’s a fairly common recommendation from safety officials whenever a wildfire or forest fire creates thick plumes of smoke in residential areas. Sometimes retail supplies of these masks can become critically low during an emergency, so it can pay to stock up whenever possible.

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