Know it’s time to up your face-mask game but not sure where to start? Self-confessed mask geek EJ Chua is here to help.
When it comes to face masks, it’s the people who refuse to wear them that understandably get all the media attention. But what about that other species of pandemic-era human being, the face-mask geek?
I don’t mean the average cautious person who straps a piece of floral fabric around their head every time they go out, but rather the type who has long been familiar with the difference between N95s, KN95s, P2s, KF94s, and FFP2s, and can even quote filtration efficiencies of different mask brands.
I can confirm this species exists because I think I’ve become a member. In 2020, I was amateurishly running up mere cloth masks on my sewing machine. In 2021, I upped my game, almost exclusively using industrial-strength KN95s. When 2022 rolled round, I had already spent hours watching videos by a YouTuber called the Mask Nerd: an American mechanical engineer, real name Aaron Collins, who uses high-end equipment to test masks, posting his results online.
Two days before the government announced that omicron was officially loose in the community, I made a rare trip to the Auckland CBD to buy an elusive and obscure brand of KF94 mask that has a 99.5% filtration efficiency according to Collins’s tests. I snagged some; cue geekgasm.
My descent into geekery was inevitable. I spent the last two years nerding out over pandemic life-hacks. In April 2020, I read the Imperial College London scientific paper that led to governments all over the world deciding to lock down. By October 2020, I knew the key differences between mRNA vaccines, viral vector vaccines, protein subunit vaccines, and inactivated virus vaccines (and had even picked favourites). Sad to say, I have prepper tendencies (the loo roll cupboard is well stocked) and a ghoulish fascination with data on epidemics. I’m not a scientist or medical professional, but I grew up in a family of doctors, and names of antibiotics rolled off my tongue by the time I was able to speak.
In short, it’s not just that I’m cautious or paranoid, it’s that I’m a giant geek and insufferable know-it-all. Research is the most fun thing. I correct footnotes in Wikipedia. I wear thick glasses and my gardening notebook is an Excel spreadsheet. It helps that I have enough postgrad education to read peer-reviewed scientific papers – or at least their abstracts, graphs, and conclusions – and to know to stay off Facebook when ferreting out information.
I also read overseas newspapers religiously, and they are full of advice about face masks. New Zealand, fortunately lagging in Covid outbreaks, has also so far lagged in this kind of conversation about quality face masks. I spoke to a friend in Auckland three weeks ago who didn’t know what a KN95 was. “What, have you been living under a rock?”, I said rudely, adjusting my glasses, as she ended the conversation.
But omicron is here, and we might all need to become mask geeks. In the last few days, especially since the update to the government’s masking guidelines, it seems that every sentient New Zealander has been trying to geek up.
By necessity, world leaders have become mask geeks too. Jacinda Ardern, who is usually seen wearing fashion cloth masks, instead wore a KN95-style mask for Sunday’s red traffic light announcement and fielded a journalist’s question about nationwide availability of these kinds of masks. Last week, US president Joe Biden said that he is giving out 400 million N95s to all Americans for free.
In 2022, only wearing cloth masks is like only having a landline: better than nothing, but way behind the times and probably risky when the intruders arrive and you only have the one rotary phone on which to dial 111. It might be the geek in me saying all this, but many experts agree. According to an emergency room doctor interviewed by CNN: “Cloth masks are little more than facial decorations. There’s no place for them in light of omicron.” This doctor didn’t mean there’s no point to mask-wearing (even 30% effectiveness is still better than zero), but rather that it’s time to upgrade your stash of masks to the ones that the professionals – and geeks – use.
What you need to know to become a mask geek too
KN-90-what now? Explainers and primers about these initialism (P2, N95, KN95, KF94, etc) have started to crop up in the NZ press. But I think that explanations don’t need to get complicated. These designations are just different names for industrial- or respirator masks. They’re the (usually) white-coloured masks with folded, tented or cupped shapes. They’re a step above even the rectangular, pleated surgical masks (which are not as good, though still worth buying). Construction workers use them to prevent dust inhalation and medical professionals use them to avoid getting you-know-what. They can protect the wearer from Covid even if no one else is wearing a mask. Best of all, they are often tops when it comes to comfort and breathability (the professionals wear them for hours).
Authorities discouraged the general public from using these masks in the early months of the pandemic, but this was only because of shortages. Factories all over the world have been churning them out for months now, which is why they are now relatively cheap and why you can see them adorning the faces of geeks like me. (Above the mask, we roll our judgy, bespectacled eyes at the fools still wearing fabric face-coverings.)
The TLDR version: just write down these letter-and-number combinations and see if you can get your hands on some.
Here’s the fine print. These “high-filtration respirators” have different names only because they’re made and quality-controlled in different countries:
P2 – Australia and New Zealand
N95 – USA
KN95 – China
FFP2 – European Union
KF94 – South Korea
These initialisms are national stamps of approval, not brands (two different brands can have the same stamp if they meet the same standards). But all are functionally equivalent for everyday use, as long as they’re bonafide. No need to get hung up on which combination of letters and numbers to buy, unless you are patriotic.
But wait a minute. Bonafide? Yes. Here are three factors that make things more complicated: (1) authenticity, (2) cost, and (3) fit.
There are fakes floating around. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in the US found that 60% of KN95s they tested were counterfeits. One sign of an authentic KN95 is that it’s stamped on the front with “GB2626-2006” or “GB2626-2019”, which refers to Chinese testing standards. As in the US, there are evidently masks being sold as KN95s in New Zealand that don’t bear those stamps and therefore are of such possibly dubious provenance that even the seller assiduously acknowledges this in a caveat. Indeed, the conversation on face-mask certification is so lagging in New Zealand that, although local news outlets have recently published explainers on KN95s, I’ve spotted ostensible editorial errors in the illustrations to these articles: instead of a picture showing the kind of authentic KN95s you should be hunting down, these articles are sometimes illustrated with pictures of what seem to be fake masks (they clearly don’t bear the GB2626 stamp – snap!).
My geekery extended to trying to verify the authenticity of the KN95s I bought last year at Bunnings and Mitre 10. (Could this be a good profiling definition of a face-mask geek? A man of a “certain age” – check – suffering from datamania – check – who shops at Bunnings and Mitre 10 – check.) Although both stores had KN95s with correct stamps on them, I eventually bought more of Bunnings’s KN95s than Mitre 10’s, simply because the former, branded “Sojo”, were more researchable. The Bunnings box came with information about the Chinese manufacturer. And this manufacturer is listed on the website of the CDC, which conducted an assessment on their “willow-leaf-shaped particulate respirator” and determined a minimum 99.26% filtration. Although “willow leaf” is not the same model as the one I bought from Bunnings, this data at least breeds some confidence about the manufacturer’s general competence. See, I told you I was a nerd. (Experts agree that the less info the manufacturer provides about themselves on the packaging, the more they may have to hide.)
Do you need to be as big of a geek as me? No. Given current conditions, just find some white, funny-shaped, designation-stamped masks without getting too hung up on it. Or surgical masks as a backup plan. (Don’t buy valved masks. A valve is like a built-in chimney. Such a mask protects you, but your chimney smoke will infect others. You need to be exhaling through the mask, not through its chimney.) If you later discover you’ve bought duds, they may possibly still be better than or equal to your old cloth mask (cloth sets the bar low). And hey, it will motivate you to up your game in the weeks ahead.
Doesn’t this get more expensive than washing and reusing your old fabric mask? Doesn’t the cost add up since respirators are meant to be single-use disposable? Well, it turns out there’s a simple hack for reusing them. You just leave them out without touching them for five to seven days, which is long enough to make the Covid virus give up its will to live (its will to live depends on being inside a human body). Overseas, experts recommend getting five to seven of these masks, putting them inside paper bags labelled Monday, Tuesday, etc, and then just rotating them. (The paper bags do nothing apart from being permeable enough to allow drying out and also deterring you or your kids from touching them during the time-out period.) You can rotate them about 10-15 times, ie for 10-15 weeks, or until they get manky (40 hours of wear per mask is apparently the rough rule of thumb.) If you don’t leave the house much and don’t wear them everyday, five to seven masks could last you months.
I bought my box of five Bunnings KN95s for $15. That’s a small price to pay for several months of protection. Especially when a package of two or three commercially manufactured cloth masks costs about the same and, as the data shows, might give you less than half the amount of protection. My philosophy is: if you’re a farmer, why wouldn’t you buy good gumboots? (Omicron makes us all knee-deep in mud now.)
I should add that, on top of being a nerd, I can also be a class-A cheapskate – and yet I still opt for the more expensive respirator masks. My experience has led me to the conclusion that it’s a false economy to try to save money by purchasing substandard masks. It’s like buying expensive LED light bulbs rather than the old-school filament cheapies: it’s a better deal in the long run. You just have to squeeze the wallet a bit for the initial outlay. Insert requisite disclaimer about being aware of my own privilege and having a middle-class-sized wallet to squeeze. But truly, for me, it’s hard to go back to flimsy or underperforming cloth or surgical masks now that I’ve experienced the robustness and longevity (when using the paper bag method) of a well-fitting respirator mask. Buying the latter no longer feels like a splurge – it feels like value for money.
The all-important factor may be good fit. The best P2 respirator doesn’t work if it hovers or hangs off your face rather than clamps firmly to it, or if you find it so uncomfortable that you can only bear wearing it around your chin. That is indeed the experts’ worry. On Sunday, Ashley Bloomfield cited the issue of fit as the reason the government isn’t yet recommending N95-type masks for the general public: “If they’re not fitted properly then they can be less effective than a normal cloth or indeed a surgical/medical mask.”
But as a face mask geek, my experience suggests that Bloomfield’s worries are misplaced. (“It’s just not accurate,” says Dr. Lucy Telfar-Barnard of the University of Otago, about Bloomfield’s stance.) I have tried two brands of KN95 and one KF94, and they fit way better than my blue surgical masks, which are so gappy they seem to create their own orifices. Indeed, I avoid standing beside strangers wearing the rectangular blue masks: their breath is obviously spraying out the gaping sides. On the few occasions I opt for blue, I have to tape the top of the mask to prevent fogging my glasses. Even then, I can feel hot breath on my neck and ears, which is a good opening sentence for a romance novel but not for a pandemic thriller.
Admittedly there are hacks for tightening up surgical-mask fit. Double-masking is popular overseas and gives your tatty fabric mask something to do even in retirement: just wear a tight cloth mask over a blue surgical mask. Taping down all sides is my own preferred hack, not even kidding (use surgical tape, which you can buy from a pharmacy, otherwise removing the mask will feel like a leg wax).
But the hacks still fall short compared to the design quality of the best respirator masks. There’s a reason industrial-grade respirators have funny shapes: most fold or tessellate tightly around the face. This has the added advantage of comfort. When I wear a KN95, my mouth and nose feel like they’re on a camping holiday inside a roomy tent, because “tent” is indeed the shape of a KN95. (“Holiday” is relatively speaking. When it comes to face-mask comfort, all of us would prefer no pandemic at all and thus no need to erect a tent on one’s face.)
Let me also put in a word for South Korean KF94s, because can anyone doubt that the coolest things nowadays are Korean? They come in different colours, which means no more sacrificing fashion for functionality. They resolve the side-gap problem better than any other masks I’ve tried so far because they’re “boat-shaped” (looks way better than it sounds). You can complete a trifecta if you wear them while listening to K-pop while Squid Game runs on a loop in the background. They even come in cute, though eco-unfriendly, packaging. (Don’t be deceived by the cuteness. According to experts, South Korea doesn’t mess around. It seems most bonafide KF94s are top of the line when it comes to filtration efficiency, and counterfeits are currently rare.) Now you know why I made a special trip into town to get some.
So contra Bloomfield, my experience and research suggests that, as a rule, respirators outperform surgical masks even when fit is taken into account. It is the latter, not the former, that are more likely to be poorly fitted and so discomfortingly gag-like that you constantly fiddle with them. Seems to me that if you start with a low baseline (cloth or gappy surgical), you’ll just go lower. If you start with a high baseline and fall a similar distance, you’re still a long way from the bottom.
Local experts agree that Bloomfield doth worry too much: Amanda Kvalsvig from the University of Otago has said that “the government needs to move away from its current stance on respirator masks (eg, P2 or N95) which appears to be that the public would not understand how to wear them… Respirator masks are standard wear in many countries and there is abundant clear and straightforward advice about their use.” In other words, if people can be educated to wash their hands for 20 seconds rather than two, they can be educated to put on a P2 mask without leaving too many gaps. Case in point: the other day I talked to someone who, with the help of a friend, had pimped up her cloth mask with a bespoke 3D-printed plastic nose clip. People aren’t stupid.
Again, the best advice may be to not get too hung up. If you’ve found a blue surgical mask that fits so well that it really does clamp on without gaps, it might be better to just stick with it. If, on the other hand, you nodded in recognition when I described the gaps in blue masks, then it’s time to switch up to a well-fitting face-tent stamped with a letter-and-number combo. My experience suggests that most of you will be in the latter category.
In short, I love you Dr Bloomfield, but I think I may be the bigger mask geek. And if the true reason you aren’t recommending N95s or P2s is that market forces alone are failing to import enough of them to cover every New Zealander, and you’re worried healthcare workers will therefore be deprived – then you need to start closing government-level deals with certified manufacturers now. (Can you especially talk to the South Korean ambassador and see about shipping in a shitload of KF94s? My supplier in the Auckland CBD could do with some competition. Alternatively if we all wear P2s, we’d be supporting Australian and New Zealand manufacturers. You might also like to follow Biden and give them out for free – though if you do so, my combination of cheapskate-gasm and nerdgasm might be volcanically audible. And I have no problem with government “commandeering” for the purposes of equitability – I wrote this article because I want every citizen to have respirator masks, not just people who happen to work in businesses that have the money and clout to import them privately.)
Which brings us to…
Oh yeah, nervous laugh, I forgot to mention that I should have told you guys all this weeks ago. Because it seems that respirators are currently sold out nearly everywhere due to omicron panic-buying. Left alone in my geeky bubble, I assumed you guys knew all this already!
But now you know to get some when they are back in stock. For if you wear one, I’m protected too. Surely this is reason enough: as well as the elderly and the immunocompromised, you need to protect the nerds in your life since you never know when their geekery might come in handy.