N95 masks are some of the smallest and most effective personal respirators money can buy. They weigh practically nothing yet are able to protect you and your family from some of the most dangerous respiratory threats out there.
We compared the most popular masks on the market to find the top ten N95 masks available. Keep reading to find our picks for the best masks to survive a whole range of different threats.
1. 3M 1860 N95 Respirator
3M is THE brand in the PPE market. The 1860 respirator is their premier medical N95 mask. It’s fully certified by NIOSH and offers excellent protection from every type of .3 micron particle.
Why we like it: These are specially designed for use in healthcare settings, with added protection against fluid particles. If your aim is to protect against a pandemic this is the N95 mask you should be wearing.
Flaws: The bright blue color, while good for easy identification, does cause them to draw more attention than a standard white mask. If your goal is to go full gray man you won’t blend in nearly as well with this respirator.
2. 3M 8511 N95 Pro Paint Vented Respirators
The 8511 is one of 3M’s most popular N95 respirator products. It was designed for use by painters, contractors, and others working in potentially hazardous conditions. It includes some of the best comfort-enhancing and protective features available.
Why we like it: The included Cool Flow Valve helps keep the interior of the mask up to 10 degrees cooler than similar N95 masks. It also makes it 30% easier to breathe.
Flaws: That same Cool Flow Valve means your exhales aren’t being filtered. If you’re wearing an N95 to prevent yourself from spreading an infection this isn’t the mask to go with.
3. Pneumatic Plus N95 Disposable Dust Mask
The Pneumatic plus incorporates many of the most in-demand features for an N95 mask with a few twists of its own. The exhalation valve on the side, combined with the sturdy repositionable nose clip, allows for a better seal and prevents exhaled breath from fogging up your glasses.
Why we like it: A robust strap system involving a plastic clip helps spread the attachment point more evenly across your face. This helps create a stronger seal and improves overall comfort for longer-term wear.
Flaws: The padded nose clip, while great from a pressure standpoint, causes a rubbing action discomfort for some users. Overall it’s still a good feature, but the inclusion of something to help keep it from moving slightly would be an improvement.
4. 3M 8110S N95 Particulate Respirator
The 8110S is a smaller than usual version of 3M’s classic disposable N95 respirator. It offers comfort-enhancing features combined with the quality 3M is famous for in a size better suited for women and older children.
Why we like it: Its small size and ergonomic design make it a much better fit for women and children than standard N95 masks. It’s still not sized for children below about 10 but does offer a significant improvement over other masks.
Flaws: Many men, especially men with wider faces, will find themselves completely unable to wear this mask. Make sure you stock multiple sizes for your whole family.
5. HEFUTE 95% Kids Multi Layer Respirator Mask
The HEFUTE 95% respirator mask uses three layers of filtration material sized for your growing preppers. They’re highly protective and have a mix of kid-friendly colors and patterns that make kids want to wear them.
Why we like it: Finding an N95 mask that will fit your kids is seriously difficult. The HEFUTE masks are sized for the faces of young children, giving them the same protections the rest of your family enjoys.
Flaws: Because it’s designed to fit such a large age range it can be difficult to get a perfect seal. The elastic used in the ear strap often needed to be adjusted in length to ensure effectiveness.
6. Dreams Box N95 Disposable Respirator Mask
This respirator mask provides N95 protection in a soft and foldable product. They can be flat-packed for storage and even disinfected for reuse so long as pollution or other non-biological particles are what you’re protecting against.
Why we like it: The design of this N95 mask creates a secure seal without resting the bulk of the mask on your face. This improves comfort and gives it added strength without the rigid structure found on most other N95 masks.
Flaws: Lacks an exhalation valve or nose padding. This improves protection from exhaled particles for others but decreases your comfort while wearing it.
7. Moldex 2300 N95 Particulate Respirator
The Moldex 2300 takes a novel approach to the N95 mask. Instead of using a rigid internal clip system Moldex went with an outer shell that provides a structure for the mask without impacting comfort.
Why we like it: Its unique dura-mesh shell allows the Moldex to have all the structure and seal strength of other masks with a much more comfortable feel and fit. This eliminates the need for an adjustable nose clip and helps prevent the mask from collapsing in on you in hot or humid weather.
Flaws: The centrally located exhalation valve has a tendency to blow warm air back up at your face. If you wear prescription or safety glasses while using this mask you’ll often find them fogging up if you don’t treat them against it. If you aren’t careful the stapled rubber bands will also break free relatively easily.
8. Solid Work N95 Foldable Respirator Mask
This N95 mask has some pretty interesting comfort and fit enhancements that really seem to work. The small wing-like flaps help take the pressure of the straps off the mask itself and contribute to an overall better fit.
Why we like it: The pair of straps allow you to individually adjust the position of the upper and lower strap. This both improves the strength of the seal and increases your comfort for long term wear.
Flaws: The large side-mounted exhalation valve kept the interior cool, but stuck out noticeably farther than on other masks. We caught it on other masks several times while pulling them out of the box, potentially causing a strap to break.
9. Litthing N95 Folding Adult Respirator
The Litthing N95 is a highly portable and ergonomic respirator mask. Its design incorporates some interesting comfort enhancements and strengthened attachment points at the nose point and ear straps.
Why we like it: The design of the Litthing respirator allows it to be folded in half without any damage. This makes it a lot easier to store multiple masks long term and to add one into a sealed part of your bug out bag or another emergency kit.
Flaws: Exhalation valve makes them unsuitable for use during a pandemic, especially where you’re worried about spreading the illness. It allows unfiltered breaths to exit where an unvalved N95 mask would stop the particles from leaving.
10. 3M 8210 Plus N95 Particulate Respirator
The 3M 8210 is the mask your dad was wearing way back in the day. It’s well built, easy to work with, and provides the same level of excellent protection it has for decades. It isn’t quite as robust or comfortable as some other masks but is still a viable option.
Why we like it: It’s a tried and tested design. The 8210 has been one of the most popular N95 respirators on the market for decades. It offers no-nonsense protection without the bells and whistles other masks advertise.
Flaws: While the design has certainly stood the test of time, it doesn’t incorporate many of the newer comfort-enhancing innovations. It’s serviceable but isn’t the most comfortable N95 mask to wear all day long by far.
What’s new with N95 Masks
Who should buy N95 Masks?
N95 masks are one of those rare products with a wide net of usability. They’re great in a situation where disease spread is an issue, but they can also provide a lot of benefits in other situations.
Here are some of the people who can most benefit from an N95 mask.
Medical Workers – Medical workers are without a doubt the group who most need the protections provided by N95 masks. They’re capable of stopping 95% of small particles, including bacteria and viruses. This is essential at preventing healthcare workers from falling victim to the very diseases they’re fighting against.
If you or a loved one is part of the medical community you should always stock up on masks. As the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak has shown, relying on an employer to provide effective PPE is a serious gamble. Make sure you and your family have the protection needed at work through your preps (1).
People with compromised immune systems – There are more immunocompromised American’s today than ever before (2). People going through chemotherapy, those with HIV, diabetes, malnutrition, and genetic conditions are just a few examples. Infections that would be a minor annoyance to a healthy person can seriously sicken or even kill them.
We as preppers always try to account for the needs of our family in our preps. One of the best ways you can protect close family members with compromised immune systems is through stocking up on N95 masks. They block out all those viruses, bacteria, and other tiny threats that also put medical workers at risk.
Contractors – N95 masks don’t only protect against biological threats. They’re also excellent at blocking dust, fibers, harmful chemicals, and other dangerous substances often encountered on active job sites. Anyone who’s ever laid insulation, done interior painting, or worked with the chemicals needed for some types of flooring can tell you how essential they are. (3)
Some of these chemicals can be really nasty stuff, with corrosive effects and the potential for long term health impacts. Even worse, anytime a shortage hits jobs still have to go on. The last thing you want is to be forced to continue working without the PPE you need to stay healthy.
Environmental cleanup crews – If you’re cleaning up abandoned buildings or other neglected properties you’re likely to encounter all kinds of nasty stuff. This is especially true where mold comes in. Inhaling mold can lead to serious consequences for those even a little bit sensitive to it (4)
Preppers living in wildfire-prone areas – The Western US, and California in particular, has seen some of the worst wildfires in its history over the past few years (5). One of the biggest dangers of a wildfire is the thick, noxious smoke they produce.
N95 masks are one of the best ways to protect you and your family from these threats. The filter elements they contain can remove 95% of the harmful particulate contained in the smoke (6).
People with allergies/asthma – Pollen season is one of the worst times of the year for those with allergies or other respiratory issues. Unfortunately, things are only getting worse as time goes on. Some parts of the country are actually seeing visible clouds of pollen that qualify as a weather condition (7).
An N95 mask is a perfect tool to filter out tree, grass, and other types of pollen to protect those sensitive to them. It’s comfortable enough to wear every day yet powerful enough to filter out the vast majority of problematic particles.
People in high-pollution cities – Many cities in America and around the world have a serious problem with air quality, one that’s only getting worse (8). For those sensitive to airborne pollution this can be a significant problem.
PM10 particles can irritate your sinuses and eyes, but it’s the PM2.5 particles you really need to worry about. These are small enough to move through your nose and mouth undetected.
They nestle down in the deepest parts of your lungs and cause serious consequences as they build up. N95 masks marked with a PM2.5 rating are perfect for blocking out both types of dangerous particles (9).
How we ranked
We used several key factors when ranking N95 masks. These were performance, certification comfort, breathability, and storage.
Performance – Without a doubt performance is the number one consideration for any survival gear, and N95 masks are no exception. In order to even be considered for our list, every mask had to provide a minimum of 95% protection against .3 micron particles. This covers all the most dangerous pollutants, fibers, chemicals, insulation/drywall debris, and viral or bacterial threats.
Certification – Every country certifies their masks a little bit differently, with different certification names as well. In the US N95 is the certification standard. Other countries’ standards matter only in that you may find yourself purchasing orders of masks from those places.
The most important are China, Japan, South Korea, Australia/New Zealand, and Europe. These are KN95, DS, Korea 1st Class, P2, and FFP2 respectively.
So long as your respirator mask has one of these certifications you’ll know that it’s roughly the same in performance as an N95 mask (10).
Comfort – Comfort is right up there with performance in our measurement. It doesn’t matter how effectively a mask works if it’s too uncomfortable to wear over the long term.
For N95 masks comfort comes down to fit, padding/nose clips, straps, and ergonomic design. The fit and straps of a mask affect how securely it seals to your face and whether or not it rubs against your skin while you wear it.
You’ll find straps in both closed ear loop and top/bottom configurations. Closed ear loops are way more common but we find top/bottom loops create a more comfortable and secure fit. The ergonomics of a mask really determine how it rests on your nose, chin, and against your cheeks.
Many masks go with a semi-rigid design that holds the mask above your face. These types of masks don’t touch near as many points as softer, less structured masks, but they also don’t store as well.
Padding and nose clips are one of the key features of a mask’s overall comfort. They impact how it sits on your nose, how strong the seal is, and whether or not the mask or padding itself is rubbing against the bridge of your nose.
Exhalation valves make it easier to breathe in your mask and prevent moisture and heat from building up inside. N95 masks with exhalation valves are generally cooler and easier to use, but present their own performance issues if biological agents are what you’re protecting against. More on that later.
Breathability – How easily you can inhale and exhale is an important part of any respirator mask’s capability. With N95 masks this mainly becomes a question of exhalation valve or no exhalation valve.
Exhalation valves are found on a lot of different N95 masks and serve to release your exhaled breath without pushing it back through the filter medium. It makes it a lot easier to breath and serves to reduce both temperature and moisture buildup inside your mask. It does have some implications for overall performance though.
The theory is most of the time you’re worried about what’s outside getting in, not what’s inside getting out. For most situations this is true, but there is one scenario where an exhalation valve can be a liability. If you’re sick and trying to prevent the spread of your illness an exhalation valve defeats the entire purpose of the mask.
Storage – Like any other prep, N95 masks need to be as packable and long-lasting as possible. You want a product that doesn’t take up too much space and is shelf-stable for a minimum of several years.
Some N95 mask makers use an abundance of rubber and other elastics in their masks. These are the first components that will break down and cause mask failure. If you’re concerned about the longevity of your mask stockpile, go for ones with less rubber and longer-lasting forms of elastic in the bands.
Brands we trust – 3M is undeniably the king in the N95 mask market. They make some of the best PPE on the market and have a wide range of different N95 mask products fit to suit the needs of every prepper.
Moldex is another company with a well-earned reputation for excellence in the PPE field. Their masks incorporate innovative features and some really nice comfort-enhancing add-ons.
Things to avoid – We don’t have any brands we would specifically recommend you stay away from, but rather a general “use your head” admonition. N95 masks are high demand products that can be life or death in the right (or wrong) situation. There are an unfortunate number of fly by night operators, copycats, and outright counterfeits out there. Make sure any N95 mask you purchase comes from a reputable source and brand.
We considered each of these factors and ranked them in order of importance. We can say with good authority that all of the masks on our list will serve you well when it counts.
N95 masks block at least 95% of particles in the .3 micron range (11). When comparing filtration systems and masks you’ll see that .3 micron figure come up a lot. The reason for this is directly related to how particles move at very small sizes.
Anything at .3 microns or larger moves in a relatively straight line while in transit. So long as your filter is small enough to block these particles it can stop anything above that level. Particles smaller than .3 microns could slip through if they moved in a straight line.
It’s hard to explain just how small particles below .3 microns really are. One comparison is to the thickness of a human hair, about 50 microns. Think about how thin your hair looks, then imagine something 150X smaller.
Below that size particles begin to be affected by the individual molecules that are in the air. They move around in a zig-zagging pattern that greatly increases their apparent path. Any filter capable of capturing .3 micron particles is also capable of capturing the bulk of smaller particles just because of this zig-zagging movement (12).
An N95 mask is so named specifically because of how effective it is. They’re certified to block a minimum of 95% of small particles that can damage the lungs or cause infections.
An N95 mask is the best protection you can get from pollution and pollen. Short of entirely staying indoors, an N95 mask is the best protection available for pollen and pollution. They’re designed to capture extremely small particles.
The most dangerous pollutants are those at PM2.5, or 2.5 microns in size. These can penetrate deeply into your lungs and cause long term damage. As we covered above, N95 masks are more than capable of stopping any particle bigger than .3 microns.
Compared to pollutants, pollen is massive. The smallest particles of pollen are about 15 microns, while the largest can be 200 microns (13). N95 masks offer the best mix of comfort, wearability, and protection from pollen and pollution.
N95 masks offer the best mix of protection and comfort against airborne pathogens than other masks. While there are masks available that offer greater particle filtration than N95 masks, they’re significantly less comfortable to wear. N99 masks filter out 99% rather than 95% of particles but reduce airflow noticeably.
You’ve no doubt heard that the best tool to have is the one you actually carry. For most average people going about their lives and N95 mask is going to be the mask you actually wear. N99 masks are technically more protective, but most people won’t be able to wear them continuously.
N95 masks go through a stringent approval and certification process. There are several regulatory bodies around the world that certify safety equipment and PPE. In the US the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) certifies all PPE, including N95 masks (14).
They perform rigorous testing to ensure that masks labeled as N95 actually block 95% of particles at the .3 micron size.
Q: Do N95 masks work on Coronavirus (COVID-19)?
A: While the individual virions of the coronavirus are smaller than the particles filtered out by N95 masks, all indications show that they can protect you when properly worn. This comes down to how COVID-19 spreads. Sneezes, coughs, and other sprays of respiratory fluid are the most common vehicle. N95 masks are capable of stopping these tiny droplets before they reach your nose or mouth (15).
Q: What are the best N95 masks for children?
A: Unfortunately, the vast majority of N95 masks will not fit on children. They’re made as adult PPE for healthcare workers and others who require chemical and medical particulate filtering. Because they require a tight seal to function, the larger masks just won’t fit on a child’s face.
One mask we identified that does fit on many children is the 3M 8110S N95 mask. It has a smaller size that makes it more able to fit on children’s small faces.
Q: How do you use an N95 mask?
A: N95 masks should be worn snugly against the skin of the face with the elastic straps over your ears. You should make sure it covers both the nose and the mouth fully. So long as the seal is secure you’re properly wearing an N95 mask.
Q: Do N95 masks work on viruses?
A: N95 masks work on particles as small as .3 microns or 300 nanometers. The majority of viruses are between 20 nanometers and 500 nanometers (16). Just looking at that you can see that some viruses will be stopped and others won’t, but it doesn’t take into account how viruses actually spread.
A mask isn’t stopping the virus itself, but the particles of fluid that they ride along on. N95 masks are more than capable of blocking those particles from getting to your face.
Q: Do I need an N95 mask with a filter?
A: The entirety of the N95 mask itself is a filter. What most people refer to as a filter is actually an exhalation valve. This allows air to flow out of your mask without having to pass back through the filtering material.
It can improve comfort, but may also reduce the overall effectiveness of the respirator. During a major pandemic, an exhalation valve is a liability as it can allow your exhalation to exit the mask in an unfiltered manner.
Q: How should N95 masks fit?
A: N95 masks work by forming an airtight seal around your face. At least once a year you should do a full fit-test, where you try your mask on then have someone blow smoke or another compound with a noticeable smell at you (17).
If you can smell whatever you’re using then the respirator isn’t sealing properly. Whenever you put one on you should also do a seal check in a mirror to see if the mask is seated smoothly against your skin without gaps.
Q: Do N95 Masks expire?
A: N95 masks have an expiration date, but it doesn’t apply to the actual filter elements of the mask. The elastic bands that hold them in place can lose strength over time, causing an imperfect fit. Even so, expired N95 masks still offer substantially more protection than other types of masks (18).
Q: Can I wear an N95 mask with a beard?
A: Unfortunately for those of us with beards and other facial hair they do impact the effectiveness of N95 masks. Any type of respirator requires a good seal to your face to work properly.
Beards prevent this seal from forming and can allow contaminated air particles to flow in. If you’re concerned about air quality and still want to maintain facial hair you’ll have to stick with an impressive handlebar mustache instead (19).
Q: Are N95 masks washable?
A: Yes and no. For well equipped and highly trained medical laboratories? Yes. A process was discovered by Duke University Scientists that uses a hydrogen peroxide vapor under laboratory conditions to fully sanitize them (20). This is great for healthcare personnel, but not really relevant for your average person. As far as your ability to effectively wash N95 masks, the answer is no.
Q: What’s the difference between an N95 mask and a surgical mask?
A: N95 masks are actual filtering respirators designed to block small particles. Surgical masks are nothing more than fabric or paper designed to catch splashed droplets of potentially infected fluids. An N95 mask can filter out individual bacterial, chemical, and other contaminant particles. A surgical mask cannot. You should always choose to stockpile N95 masks over surgical masks.
Q: Do N95 masks protect from wildfire smoke?
A: Yes. N95 masks are designed to filter out small particles from the air. This includes the ash and other air pollution caused by wildfires. N95 masks are superior to everything short of a full-up gas mask with up to date filter elements.
An N95 mask is just about the cheapest and most widely available protective respirator you can find. They’re available in every hardware store, paint shop, or home improvement supercenter and cost next to nothing compared to other options.
They offer the best mix of protection and wearability of current mask systems plus they’re small and packable enough to fit into any size bug out bag. So long as you fit test your chosen mask and find one that forms a good seal, they can protect you against pollutants, pollen, smoke, and even bacteria or viruses.
For Survival At Home’s #1 N95 Mask recommendation, click here.
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