masked doctor wearing glasses

The Best Black N95 Mask (Isn’t N95 At All)

by Matt Collins

The Best Black N95 Mask you can buy for personal protection… isn't even an N95 mask.

To find out why that is, we have to go all the way back to March of 2020.

Back then, during the early stages of the government's COVID-19 lockdowns, all sorts of products were flying off store shelves. Even toilet paper was practically unattainable there for a few weeks.

But N95 masks and PPE were far and away some of the highest-demand items of 2020.

Americans were buying so much PPE, in fact, that medical professionals started facing dangerous shortages. Hospitals were packed with patients, and caregivers could not protect themselves.

masked doctor

Hospitals spent over $3 billion on PPE in the first eighteen months of the pandemic and still ran short. (Image courtesy of Fierce Healthcare)

Out of desperation, 13% of medical facilities reported that they'd started making their own PPE—including everything from face shields and medical gloves to eye protection and surgical masks. 25% of medical facilities were even making their own testing supplies!

Before long, the situation got so bad that officials started pleading with the public not to buy the best black N95 masks so medical facilities could access much-needed protective gear.

Ironically, despite the skyrocketing popularity of black N95 masks, they're not entirely sufficient to protect you from threats like the novel coronavirus (but more on that later).

So if you're hoping to prepare for the next global health crisis—or if you're a medical professional who wants to avoid donning homemade PPE the next time your hospital starts to fill up—then you should definitely consider the next level of protection…

Table of Contents

  • 01

    N95 Protective Standards

  • 02

    95% Protection Isn't 100% Protection

  • 03

    Upgrading to P3 Protection

  • 04

    So, What's REALLY the Best Black N95 Mask?

  • 05

    Don't Compromise on Protection

N95 Protective Standards

N95 masks offer high protection (95% filtration, by definition) against various airborne particles, including viruses and bacteria.

These masks are engineered to filter out airborne particles, including droplets and aerosols carrying infectious agents. As such, N95 masks are highly proficient at capturing particles with a size of 0.3 micrometers (µm) or larger—and this particle size is arguably their single most important limiting factor.

Honeywell’s breakdown of how an N95 mask works.

Honeywell’s breakdown of how an N95 mask works. (Image courtesy of Honeywell)

These masks also incorporate electrostatically charged filter materials, typically made of polypropylene. This electrostatic charge plays a pivotal role in attracting and capturing charged particles, thereby enhancing filtration efficiency.

N95 respirators also tend to incorporate multiple layers of filtration material. These multiple layers work in synergy to trap particles through diverse mechanisms, improving the overall protection they can provide.

Typically, filtration efficiency for masks like these is evaluated using two essential metrics: particle penetration and filter efficiency.

Particle penetration measures the percentage of particles passing through the mask's filter material. For N95 respirators, the standard mandates a particle penetration rate of no more than 5%, signifying that these masks can filter out at least 95% of particles measuring 0.3 µm in size.

Filter efficiency, on the other hand, represents the percentage of particles effectively captured and filtered by the mask.

N95 masks must have a minimum filter efficiency of 95%, implying their capacity to remove 95% of 0.3 µm particles from the air. It’s worth noting, however, that N95 respirators often exhibit even higher filtration efficiency for particles larger than 0.3 µm, making them a solid choice for everyday use.

Additionally, masks are highly effective in preventing the transmission of respiratory viruses such as influenza, tuberculosis, and (in some cases) COVID-19.

A study published in The Lancet in 2020 found that N95 respirators reduced the risk of respiratory infection by 85%. For this reason, black N95 masks are commonly employed in occupational settings where exposure to fine particulate matter, such as dust, smoke, or pollen, poses a health risk.

Yet while these masks are great for reducing exposure to these types of common airborne particles, they're far from perfect and come with some serious limitations…

Over time, moisture from exhalation and external sources can degrade the electrostatic charge of the filter material, gradually reducing its efficiency. Physical damage, bumps, and scratches to the surface of the mask can also compromise its effectiveness. External pollutants, meanwhile, can creep their way into the fabric of the mask, and the mere fact that most N95 gear is made from simple cloth and elastic limits their ability to provide a reliable seal for comprehensive protection.

Accordingly, guidelines for extended use and limited reuse have been developed for individuals, such as healthcare workers, who require regular use of N95 respirators. These guidelines consider factors such as the risk of contamination and the integrity of the mask, but it's still essential to adhere to manufacturer recommendations and regulatory guidelines when reusing N95 respirators.

But these shortcomings are all secondary to the biggest weakness in even the best black N95 mask…

95% Protection Isn't 100% Protection

Like we mentioned above, N95 respirators are engineered to filter out at least 95% of particles measuring 0.3 µm in size.

Meanwhile, viruses like SARS CoV-2 range from 0.07 μm to 0.09 μm in size. In other words, the virus could sail right through a typical protective mask.

Now of course, things aren't quite that simple.

While the virus itself is small enough to pass through most masks, it is–more often than not–transmitted via liquid droplets. An infected person sneezes or coughs, ejecting those microscopic droplets into the air. If you’re breathing the same air, you can inhale those droplets, and then the virus starts going to work on you too.

hankfully, even a humble cloth mask can prevent you from inhaling those droplets. That kind of protection is certainly better than nothing, which is why surgical masks have long been worn in East Asian countries to stem the spread of flu and other viruses.

If you live in Japan, for example, and you’re feeling a bit under the weather, it’s not uncommon to wear a mask when you go out. This isn’t so much to protect you from the outside world, as to prevent you from spreading the virus any further.

In other words, these masks a more a matter of courtesy than comprehensive protection.

Comprehensive respiratory protection, after all, can only come from a respirator—not a strip of cloth strapped across your nose and mouth.

That’s where MIRA Safety’s line of respirators comes in. Where the typical black N95 mask is made from layered cloth and elastic, our half-face and full-face respirators are made from thick butyl rubber. This rubber can stretch and contour to ensure a genuinely airtight fit around your nose and mouth, ensuring nothing gets in and nothing gets out.

Man with P3-equipped TAPR respirator

A P3-equipped TAPR respirator provides an airtight fit.

As a matter of fact, any time you’re donning and doffing a gas mask, it’s standard practice to perform a “negative pressure test” and ensure the seal is truly airtight.

A secure seal ensures that all air entering and exiting the mask is directed through the filter material rather than circumventing the filtration layers through gaps. A good fit, after all, is essential for optimizing protection, because any leakage can severely compromise the mask's efficacy. Several studies have underscored the importance of a proper fit, demonstrating that an inadequate seal or improper fit can significantly reduce the protective capacity of N95 respirators.

As outlined in a study published in The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene in 2010, fit testing reduced the number of poorly fitting N95 respirators from 29% to 3%. Consequently, the importance of proper fit testing and adjustment cannot be overstated.

And you don't get that kind of reliability from a typical N95 respirator. Whether it's a cloth mask or half-face respirator, these filters aren't known for being the most durable or reliable.

In reality, N95 gear is best used occupationally—in work environments where the threats are well-known beforehand. Remember: they only became popular during the 2020 health crisis because many people (wrongly) thought N95 masks were the best protection they could get.

But when you’re dealing with potentially lethal threats, and you want uncompromising protection, you're better off reaching for a gas mask/respirator equipped with P3 particle filtration.

These types of respirators, after all, are engineered to be reused repeatedly in harsh environments. Plus, they're easy to clean, easy to maintain, and they can last for years.

They can also be used with P3-rated filter cartridges for next-level protection.

Upgrading to P3 Protection

P3 filters are rated to stop 99.95% of all airborne threats. That's the highest level of certification and as close to 100% protection as possible without using a self-contained unit with a separate air source.

On this basis, P3 respirators and filters are vital for people in areas with high levels of air pollution or during public health emergencies, such as wildfires or pandemics.

They’re also used in occupational settings to protect workers from inhaling hazardous substances like dust, fumes, and toxic chemicals. Without adequate filtration, these airborne contaminants can lead to various respiratory ailments, including occupational lung diseases like pneumoconiosis and exacerbate preexisting conditions like asthma.

Infographic showing the difference between P1, P2, and P3-certified filters

The difference between P1, P2, and P3-certified filters. (Image courtesy of Delta Plus)

In healthcare settings, P3 particle filtration is critical for reliable protection from infectious diseases. That’s because it helps prevent healthcare workers from inhaling airborne pathogens like bacteria and viruses, reducing the risk of contracting and spreading diseases like tuberculosis, influenza, or COVID-19.

Significantly, P3 Particle filtration uses the same basic mechanisms as N95 filtration. It combines mechanical filtration with an electrostatic charge to enhance particle capture efficiency. This electrostatic charge is applied to the filter media, making it more attractive to particles with opposite electrical charges.

But once again, P3 filtration is differentiated by the fact that it’s certified to filter out 99.95% of all airborne threats, instead of just 95% for N95. That often calls for the integration of ultra-low-particulate-air (ULPA) filtering elements, and other sophisticated filter media. While that extra 4% might not sound like much, it makes a world of difference in practice.

So, What's REALLY the Best Black N95 Mask?

If you're looking for the best practical protection that's lightyears ahead of N95, you should reach for the MIRA Safety Tactical Air-Purifying Respirator (TAPR for short).

the TAPR

The TAPR comes with a complete kit to get you started, including two filters (one of which is a P3 ParticleMax compact filter), a head harness, a storage case, and a hip pouch for easy carrying.

As the name implies, the TAPR was initially designed for special forces use. That means it has the advantage of being super-flexible and very lightweight (4 ounces), making it a great choice for everyday use. Stored in its pouch, it’s small enough to fit in a purse or backpack. And it can stay safely on the shelf for years until you finally need it.

If and when you do need it, the TAPR provides uncompromising protection that's perfect for anyone whose work might be classified as "essential" during a health crisis, including medical professionals, firefighters and police officers. That’s because this half-face mask provides the same level of respiratory protection as our standard gas masks (with the exception of protecting your eyes and upper face).

Of course, a gas mask like the CM-6M would be an equally effective choice. But like we saw during the 2020 health crisis, high-end protective gear often has a stigma attached to it. Accordingly, going out for groceries wearing a gas mask and a full-body hazmat suit will likely get you more attention than you bargained for.

But half-face respirators like the TAPR are used every day in various industries and healthcare settings. If anything, most folks would just see it and wish they had one of their own.

You'll also want to stock up on P3 ParticleMax filters for practical protection.

ParticleMax P3 filter

These filters come six to a pack and are some of the best-value protection you can get. They can protect you from the full range of viral and bacterial threats and other types of inhaled particulates, including fine sawdust to asbestos.

At just 3.5 ounces, they're lightweight and have a twenty-year shelf life—meaning they'll last in storage as long as the average gas mask. These 40 mm filters are compatible with the TAPR, and with all of MIRA Safety's other gas masks and respirators.

Of course, it's worth noting that due to the smaller size and lighter weight of the TAPR, it's incompatible with all gas mask filters. That means that if the filter is too heavy, it can compromise the TAPR's seal on your face by pulling down too hard on one side. You can counteract this by using a tube to connect the mask to the filter (mounted on your waist or elsewhere). But lightweight P3 filters are great for long hours of use.

The CDC has established guidelines for reusing respirators and PPE like the P3 ParticleMax Filter. These revised guidelines provide a new provision for essential workers to rotate through their P3 filters, always having a few clean filters on hand just in case. We likewise recommend at least one six-pack per family member.

Finally, if you must wear a cloth mask—or if a cloth mask is the only option—then we recommend something infused with Silverplus®.

MIRA Safety cloth masks

The antimicrobial properties of silver have been known about for centuries now. It's everywhere, from ancient applications to modern silver-infused gauze used for neurodermatitis treatments. And thanks to the revolutionary new Silverplus® compound, we can embed it in our own cloth masks.

Each mask is deeply embedded with silver ions that work to neutralize bacteria and odors at the molecular level. Best of all, the masks have a practically unlimited shelf life. And the silver ions are embedded so deeply into the fabric that they won't come out even after hundreds of wash cycles.

Now, it's worth noting that MIRA Safety Silverplus® masks are NOT N95-certified. But if you find yourself in an everyday situation where the potential for infection is limited, but you're still expected to wear a mask, these are a great choice.

Don't Compromise on Protection

Many folks believe the N95 Mask is the best practical protection they can get.

But technological advancement has made top-tier PPE more affordable and more accessible than it's ever been before. As such, virtually every American can now afford a practical P3 respirator and enough filters to protect themselves from biological threats almost indefinitely.

That's an unprecedented opportunity that many of us can't afford to ignore.

Because even during the extended pandemic shutdowns of 2020 and 2021, millions of Americans still had to do "essential" jobs. That included healthcare workers, the folks who protect and serve, and grocery store staff and delivery drivers.

Man on street with mask

The 2020 lockdowns saw millions of Americans become essential workers. (Image courtesy of CNN)

If and when there's another global health crisis, we can expect the same workers to find themselves on the frontlines again. And once again, PPE will quickly become impossible to find.

But if you act now, you can stock up on practical protection that will last twenty years on the shelf—and could potentially save your life if and when you need it.