Know the difference between cloth face masks, N95 respirators and surgical masks

Coronavirus Updates, Your Health

Not All Face Masks are Created Equal: Know Which Type of Face Mask You Need and When

As we’re all navigating our new normal with coronavirus circulating across the globe these past few months, we’ve heard a bunch of talk about face masks. But do you know the difference between the different types and which one is most appropriate for you? Learn more about face masks and when you should be wearing them.

Over the past few months, we’ve been hearing a lot about face masks. From the latest CDC recommendations, to the recent face mask requirement in North Carolina and other states who are experiencing a climb in COVID-19 cases, to organized groups banding together to donate face masks to underserved communities in need, it’s clear that these masks are hot on everyone’s minds lately.

But between face masks for healthcare workers and face masks for the rest of us, what do we really know about these different types of face masks? Here are some frequently asked questions and answers to help explain a few things about the use of masks during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak.


Question 1: I’ve been hearing a lot about N95 masks. What does this mask do that’s different from others?

Answer 1: N95 masks, or N95 respirators, are a type of personal protective equipment (PPE) used most commonly by healthcare workers who are in need of a higher level of protection. These kinds of masks are tighter-fitting and made of higher filtration material than regular masks so that they can filter out an estimated 95% of airborne particles that might otherwise pose a threat to an individual’s health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not recommend that the general public wear N95 respirators to protect themselves.

With the rising demand of these masks, there is a global shortage of this kind of mask. Wondering how you can help? We are currently accepting donations of N95s, and other medical equipment if you have any of these supplies available and are willing to donate.

Q2: Who needs to wear an N95?

A2: N95s are intended only for healthcare professionals who need protection from airborne hazards when tending to patients. Examples of who might need this type of mask would include, healthcare workers who do procedures that put germs into the air – especially our teammates who work with patients on ventilators and other invasive procedures.

Q3: What about surgical masks?

A3: In addition to N95 masks, there are also surgical or “procedure” masks. These masks are made in different thicknesses and have ability to protect healthcare workers from contact with splashes. A surgical mask is the type you are used to seeing on TV surgeons, and are usually rectangle shaped. Most of the time, surgical masks will be worn by our teammates providing direct patient care. We miss seeing their smiles, but know that keeping them safe is more important!

Q4: Do healthcare workers need cloth masks, too?

A4: Yes! Cloth masks are recommended for healthcare workers who are not providing direct patient care. This includes teammates who bring supplies to our units, working in our kitchens and cafeterias, and our pharmacy technicians.

Q5: How can I donate homemade cloth masks to help healthcare workers?

A5: We welcome donations of homemade masks. We are asking they be made in a special way so that we can insert filters into them, giving our teammates and patients an extra level of protection. Here are directions on sewing adult-sized masks and pediatric-sized masks. In addition to giving cloth masks to our teammates who don’t provide direct patient care, we would like to have enough cloth masks to be able to provide our adult and pediatric patients a mask when they walk in the door. This will help us preserve our surgical masks for our doctors, nurses and other teammates caring for patients.

Q6: I’m not a healthcare worker. Do I need a face mask? If so, what kind do I need and when am I expected to wear it?

A6: If you live in the state of North Carolina, it is now a requirement for the general public to wear a face mask in settings where social distancing can't be safely maintained. If you live outside of North Carolina and your state hasn't issued a face mask mandate, wearing a cloth face mask is still strongly encouraged by the CDC. There are many different kinds of do-it-yourself masks – and most are just fine. The important thing is to have a thick enough material that can better block germ particles. Layers of fabric can help with this. You can follow the mask patterns above that we are asking be used for our healthcare workers, or you can also use a simpler pattern for your regular use.

Masks should only be worn if developmentally appropriate and if tolerated. The CDC says not to put a mask on young children under age 2.

Q7: Do I need to wear a mask if I come to the hospital or any other healthcare facilities?

A7: We’re asking anyone who comes to our locations wear a mask. If you are coming to one of our locations for care or other reason, we ask that you wear a mask of some kind. If you don’t have one, we will provide you one.

We would like to reserve surgical masks for our teammates providing direct patient care, so we really appreciate patients and visitors wearing cloth masks to our facilities.

But before you head to any of our facilities, be sure to check our latest visitor restrictions policy to be sure that your visit is permitted during this time.

Q8: Do I need to wear a mask everywhere?

A8: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends almost everyone wear a face covering, or mask, in public places like grocery stores, pharmacies and other places where it is hard to stay 6 feet apart from other people.

And if you live in a state that has issued a face mask requirement, you are expected to always wear a mask in public settings - both indoors and outdoors - where social distancing is difficult to maintain. 

Learn more about the details regarding North Carolina's face mask requirements. 

Q9: How can I make wearing a cloth mask more comfortable?

A9: Wearing a mask is not something most of us are used to doing. Make sure you are doing it correctly so that you get the best protection. Some people are finding they need to modify the straps or loops with clips and other items behind their head. This is all fine – as long as it fits securely over your nose and mouth, and as long as you can still breathe! Remember – this means you should not slip your mask off your nose, or down around your chin. To work, the mask needs to cover your nose and mouth.

Just as important — when wearing the mask, try not to touch it. When you have to touch it – to remove it, for example – wash your hands with soap and water after. And, if you are using a cloth mask, make sure you’re washing the mask after a few wears so it stays clean.

Q10: Will a cloth mask protect me?

A10: The main reason for wearing a cloth mask is to protect other people. If you are wearing a cloth mask over your mouth and nose and you cough or sneeze, the mask can catch respiratory droplets and keep them from landing on other people.

If you are wearing a mask and someone next to you coughs or sneezes, their respiratory droplets would hit your mask instead of your mouth! But, it is very important for you to not touch the front of your mask. And if you do forget and touch the front of your mask, just make sure you wash your hands right away.

The cloth masks also keep you from inadvertently touching your mouth or nose with unwashed hands.

Q11: Does wearing a mask affect your oxygen or carbon dioxide levels, or affect your ability to breathe in any way?

A: "For the overwhelming majority of patients, masks do not affect oxygen nor carbon dioxide levels in the lungs nor in the bloodstream. For patients with severe chronic respiratory diseases, occasionally masks can affect such issues for these individuals, but these situations are rare. And to help protect such individuals, it is advised that those patients be particularly keen on practicing social distancing and that others around them wear masks," says Jaspal Singh, MD, professor of medicine for pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine at Atrium Health.


Atrium Health is committed to help slow the spread of COVID-19 and has partnered with many of the state's largest employers and other local businesses to donate 2 million face masks to the community. To receive a free mask, visit AtriumHealth.org/FreeMasks to find a pickup location near you.  

Learn more about why wearing cloth face masks is a good idea for the general public.

For more information about face masks or how to donate, email CommunityBenefit@AtriumHealth.org