What is the difference between AEA's Level 2 mask and a regular 3-ply mask?
Several have asked us this question, including a couple of our customers who received our masks and wondered if they were any differences.
Despite our efforts to point out on the site that AEA's masks and respirators are indeed tested, and approved for medical use by the FDA, outwardly, they may not look any different from other masks or respirators.
So happened, my daughter gave me a mask that she received from our county's Recreation Center. That sparked my curiosity, and I decided to document the comparison between this "county-issued 3-ply mask" and our Level 2 mask. The hope is that everyone will see that aside from test reports that clearly demonstrate the performance of a mask, a simple comparison like this will show where the money is or not!
This 1st picture shows that both mask, AEA Level 2 (Mask A) and the county-issued mask (Mask B) at a glance, look the same.
Show of hands those of you that experienced the strap breaking off when you tried to put the mask on. In fact, Mask B did actually break when I was documenting this. Unfortunately, I wasn't recording, nor do I have a way to measure the force difference.
Good masks would do a good (measurable) job in filtering and still be easily (also measurable) breathable. A Level 2 needs to filter over 98% of bacteria and sub-micron particles (0.1 micron). It also needs to have breathability (Delta-P) of less than 5.0 mm H20/cm2. These are requirements for medical-grade Level 2, which unlike other masks, like our county-issued, are not medical-grade. So the picture below shows the big difference.
Back to the straps, here you see where corners were cut when Mask B was produced.
Breaking out the scissors, now we can really see where the real money is (or not). The middle layer of a 3-ply mask is the filter, which is the meltblown polypropylene non-woven layer. This would be the most expensive part of the mask. You may find some 3-plys that claim to have over 99% BFE (Bacterial Filtration Efficiency) and PM2.5 (basically the same as the BFE), but to protect the wearer, the sub-micron PFE (Particulate Filtration Efficiency) is critical and most public masks won't test for it. I have seen some that test for it but would get less than 90% PFE, which is not even Level 1 (>95%). Even the highest Chinese medical mask standard only requires the PFE to be over 40%. Again, Level 2 and Level 3 will have PFE of over 98%. Take a look.
Since the masks were cut, I also pulled out both mask's nose bridge wire to compare. This is something interesting, whether for reusable, disposable, or even respirators. The wire should always be pliable and easily stays at the position you fixed. The county-issued mask had a fancy, long strip that looked expensive. But when you put it on or tried to bend it, the strip kept wanting to recover. This will not help with the sealing of the mask, which jeopardizes the performance. Below you will see the strip difference and when I tried to bend them.
In conclusion, while masks may look similar, knowing how to examine them will give you peace of mind that you made the right investment. There are other tests that I may try to document the next time I have another mask to compare with but know that the most critical and comprehensive tests were already done and verified by the FDA. This is the only way for our masks and respirators to be accepted.
In case this blog stimulated your interest in mask comparisons, here is an article with video by the Singapore Straits Times comparing six similar masks. It is sad to see that some, to save cost, would allow such inadequate quality masks to be used. This is not just in Singapore or elsewhere; they are here in the USA as well. Be wary!