At the beginning of the COVID -19 pandemic, many of us opted to buy surgical masks and reusable fabric masks to protect ourselves from the virus. But since the highly infectious omicron variant emerged it became evident that the best protection came from a well-fitted respiratory face mask, with N95 masks topping the list. The N95 particulate respirator is designed to provide the best protection against the virus as they can fit perfectly onto the face. They also provide a higher level of filtration from droplets and aerosols compared to cloth masks. However, these N95 particulate respirators have a short shelf life and it can be inconvenient and pricy to switch to a new mask so often.
It needs to be noted that N95 masks are recommended for one-time use only. NIOSH does not formally recommend re-usage or decontamination of N95 particulate respirators acknowledges that they can be reused during times of scarcity. The strategies below are the options you can consider based on institutional resources and individual judgment.
How To Extend The Shelf Life Of N95 Particulate Respirator
It is crucial to understand the difference between reuse, extended use, and processing of N95 face masks, so here are the differences.
Because the coronavirus loses its significant viability after 72 hours, many organizations have promoted a rotation and re-usage strategy.
The CDC suggests that N95 face masks can be reused up to 5 times by following the mask rotation strategy below:
- Acquire at least five sets of N95 particulate respirators and use them alternatively each day.
- After usage of the N95 particulate respirator, hang the respirator to dry in a clean environment for at least 72 hours after each use.
- Follow proper storage hygiene by placing the N95 particulate respirator separately in a breathable and clean container while waiting to use it again.
- Make sure that the masks do not touch each other or that you do not share your N95 respirator with other people.
CDC reports say that prolonged usage of N95 particulate respirators can be safe only for up to 8 hours, encouraging the wearer to review the prior recommendation of manufacture before the extended use. One strategy suggested is to wear an anti-fog face shield over the N95 particulate respirator as it decreases the soiling/contamination of the mask.
Mask decontamination methods have been actively reviewed by the CDC. The principles of decontamination/ re-processing include:
1. The fit of the N95 particulate respirator cannot be compromised.
2. The mask must not be soiled by makeup or bodily fluids.
3. The electrostatic charge and the filtration capacity must be preserved as much as possible.
4. The method must inactivate the viral load of the mask.
Below is a summary of the denomination methods that support the current data. Note that there are a variety of ways that N95 masks can be contaminated depending on the different shape and strap material.
- Hydrogen Peroxide Vaporization
Hydrogen peroxide vaporization is a decontamination method that allows N95 preprocessing while preserving its actual functionality. This method can only be used on N95 particulate respirators that do not contain cellulose, such as an 1860. It’s also been approved of by the FDA for health care settings during the COVID– 19 pandemic. This process can be dangerous and difficult to be performed without highly specialized equipment.
- UV Treatment
To ensure proper inactivation of virus partials, treating the N95 particulate respirator with distinct protocols is required. But home UV treatment is not recommended to decontaminate the N95 particulate respirator due to the proper precision required. This method of decontamination is mostly practiced in hospitals with professional guidance.
- Moist Heat
Moist heating at 60-70°C in 80-85% relative humidity has shown to be effective on the flu virus. But there are limitations on data of humidity, temperature, and the exact time required to inactivate SARS-COV-2 viral particles completely. Additionally, the particles that are required to kill the virus may adversely affect the filtration efficiency of the N95 particulate respirator.
Keeping your mask for dry heating at 70°C for 30 minutes adequately kills the virus and preserves filter integrity for reuse. Recent tests done by NIH on SARS-CoV-2 have indicated that the dry heat method can be used for up to 2 cycles to kill the virus efficiently. This method may be valuable for small clinical units that are unable to access enough N95 respirators or for members of the public who have an old N95 respirator at home.
Which Reusable Methods Are Not Approved?
- Soapy water
- Sanitizing wipes
- Ethylene oxide
How Do I Know When It’s Time To Throw Out My N95 Particulate Respirator Mask?
Discard your N95 particulate respirator if it has any cuts or tears on it. Similarly, your N95 respirator is no longer usable if mucus or other bodily fluids have gotten on the mask when you sneeze, etc.
Although there are various methods to decontaminate the N95 particulate respirator, it’s recommended to dispose of your masks when they get dirty. According to CDC, the N95 respirators must not be used more than five times.
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