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How to find N95 masks: where to look, what to avoid, tips for wearing them

Because they're in high demand, finding them could require an extended hunt; several companies in B.C. make N95-equivalent masks

As COVID-19 cases soar, some health experts are calling for more widespread wearing of N95 masks. If you wear them properly, they can provide better protection against COVID-19 than other types of masks, such as fabric masks and pleated rectangular medical masks. Though, as with all things involving the pandemic, there isn’t expert agreement on whether expanded use is needed. This article will largely skip over the politics of N95 masks and focus on the logistics of buying and wearing them.

I’ve been buying and wearing N95s for the past year, donning them in higher-risk settings, such as on a crowded bus. Here are some of the questions I’ve posed and the answers I’ve found.

Where can you buy them?

A huge of range of N95 designs are available. To avoid counterfeits, stick with masks that have been approved by Health Canada or NIOSH. Look for the brand name, search online for news coverage of the company that makes them to assess their credentials.

Go to the websites of mask manufacturers (some are listed below). Look in pharmacies, medical-supply houses, first-aid supply companies, and stores that sell safety supplies, hardware, industrial supplies and office supplies. Some of these places prefer not to sell in small quantities to non-business customers, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.

You could check these databases to confirm approval:

NIOSH certified equipment

Health Canada authorized devices list

What did I buy?

After sampling a variety of N95s and N95 equivalents, I settled on two models: the 3M 8210 and, in second place, the Eclipse Horizon.

While I like these, you might not. Mask fit is very personal.

• The 3M 8210 is widely used. It’s a cup style, a bit rigid, with a metal nose clip that’s visible on the outside. Two straps go behind the head, as they do with most N95s. It’s made in the United States from globally sourced materials, the box says. I’ve seen it for sale online at uline.ca and at staples.ca. Search for 3M N95 mask; don't get the valve version (see below). 

• The Eclipse Horizon comes folded flat, individually wrapped in plastic. It feels like a thickish piece of flexible fabric; the nose clip is embedded in the material. The fold is horizontal, which has led to a nickname for this style of mask: the duckbill. (Some wits at the office like to say quack, quack when they wear it.) When breathing in and out, the mask material might go in and out. It’s one of the few masks I’ve seen that’s available in three sizes: small, regular and large. Read the directions and make careful face measurements before buying. It’s made by Eclipse Innovations Inc., based in Cambridge, Ont., and sold online at The Canadian Shield.

• There’s also the Eclipse Arc, which has a vertical fold, made by the same company. I haven’t tried it. The Canadian Shield sells it too. 

Several companies in British Columbia make N95 or N95-equivalent masks.

• I’ve tried the Eternity, from Eternity Medical Equipment in Surrey. It’s made of a thickish flexible material, has a vertical fold, and an embedded nose clip. I’d buy it again if the 8210 wasn’t available.

• There’s Vitacore in Burnaby. I haven’t managed to track down their masks yet. Vitacore sells via their website and through London Drugs.

• Innolifecare in Port Coquitlam also makes and sells masks. I haven’t tried them. Their website lists a 4-layer cup mask, but it doesn’t have N95 labelling.

• I’ve seen people wearing the Kross Direct N95 mask, from a company in Etobicoke, Ont. On their website, they sell in volume to commercial customers. You might find some at retailers. I have never worn one.

How do you cope with the out-of-stock messages?

Select some websites and check them daily. With a little luck, you’ll eventually encounter re-stocking day. Some places take pre-orders.

How much should they cost?

Prices vary depending on brand, style and how many you buy. At retail, expect to pay $1 to $3.50 per mask if you buy in multiples. Price gouging is happening. 3M has published a list of prices that you should expect for its masks. 

How do you wear an N95?

Fit is extremely important. You might as well not wear an N95 if you don’t wear it properly. The edges of the mask must be tight to the face — no gaps. I’ve seen people use medical tape at the nose for a better seal. Here’s a video that CHI Health in the U.S. posted on YouTube, demonstrating how an N95 should be donned. To remove a mask, pull the bottom strap forward over your head, then the top strap; don't touch the mask, hold only the straps. 

How comfortable is it?

It takes getting use to. It’s tight. You might have to try a few models to find one that suits you. Wear one around home to get accustomed to it before going public. Practise putting it on and taking it off. I’ve found that the behind-the-head straps are more comfortable and better at pulling tight than earloops.

Also, because N95s such as the 3M 8210 and the Eclipse Horizon don’t come in contact with mouth and nostrils, it’s easier to breathe while wearing them, versus the rectangular medical masks.

Expect to have creases in your face after extended wearing of an N95.

Once you get used to it, you barely notice you’re wearing an N95. This happened: I unwrapped a chocolate bar, aimed for my mouth, and rammed the bar into the mask I was wearing.

How long will they last?

You can’t wash them. The science on how long you can wear an N95 is murky. It depends on what happens to the mask. Replace if it gets wet, soiled, damaged, if breathing through it becomes difficult, it no longer fits tightly, or if you've worn it for many hours in a risky environment. An expiry date should be printed on the box. If they are relatively new, the expiry will be several years into the future.

An article in the Washington Post: How often can you safely reuse your KN95 or N95 mask?

Should I get an ear-loop version of an N95?

No. A tight fit is too painful with ear loops. Buy N95 masks with two straps that go behind your head.

What about N95s with exhalation valves?

The one-way valves (your breath comes out) are meant to make breathing easier. Many places, including some airlines, say valve masks are not acceptable because viruses could come out through the valve. But some manufacturers say it’s no worse than what comes out through the gaps of a rectangular medical mask. An option: wear a medical mask on top of a valved N95.

Here’s a document on the issue from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in the U.S.

What’s an alternative to an N95?

Double masking. Put on a disposable medical mask, put a cloth mask on top of it for a tighter fit and an extra layer of protection.

Web links for more information about N95 masks.

• Health Canada discussion about masks

A 3M Q&A about masks

• U.S.-based Aaron Collins (Mask Nerd) has many videos on YouTube about masks