3M N95 Respirator: Valve or No Valve?

3M N95 Respirators have gained popularity as a top choice of PPE during the pandemic. Learn more about the N95 and whether you should choose valve or no valve.

 3M N95 Respirators


One of the many outcomes of the Coronavirus Pandemic is that the term “N95” has become a house-hold name. Prior to 2020 no one outside of the safety or PPE industries could tell you what a 3M N95 respirator was, now you could ask anyone you meet on the street and it is highly likely that they have at least heard the term. This is due, of course, to the media’s coverage of the pandemic and ensuing shortages of critical PPE, including 3M N95 respirators. 


The general public became aware that the 3M N95 respirator was the most effective way to protect themselves from contracting COVID-19 via airborne particles, but supplies were dwindling. Soon, people with very little knowledge of respiratory protection were trying to get their hands on whatever N95 masks they could find, even if they were not appropriate for the situation. There still tends to be some confusion on what type of 3M N95 respirator is suitable in each circumstance, so our experts at Conney Safety broke it down. 


Why 3M N95 Respirators?


First, it should be noted that a 3M N95 respirator is just one type and brand of particulate filtering respirator. The “95” indicates that the mask is equipped with a 95 percent filtration efficiency rate for airborne particles that are 0.3 micron or larger, but is not resistant to oil-based particles. 


3M N95 respirators have gained popularity as the PPE of choice by healthcare workers during the pandemic, but before COVID-19, 3M N95 respirators were used across a variety of industries to protect employees from exposure to things like asbestos, silica and other dusts. Many of the 3M N95 respirators are NIOSH-approved. 


Typically, 3M N95 respirators used for these purposes were equipped with an exhalation valve to increase breathability and comfort for the wearer while protecting them from breathing in harmful particles. 


During the pandemic, many people who already owned 3M N95 respirators with exhalation valves began using them as a means to prevent contracting COVID-19, but here’s something we don’t always think about. Because of the exhalation valve, the air you exhale from the 3M N95 respirator is not filtered. This is because, for the most part, 3M N95 respirators only served to protect the wearer from what was outside the mask. This unfiltered exhalation can put others at risk – especially if the N95 wearer is sick. When a person coughs or sneezes, the valve can be an escape hatch for germs.


When Not To Use an Exhalation Valve?


This concept has not been lost on public health officials. In fact, early in the pandemic many airlines implemented policies that prohibited the use of 3M N95 respirators with exhalation valves in an effort to protect their crews and other passengers. They wanted to eliminate the risk of sick passengers boarding an airplane and infecting those around them.


Is a valved 3M N95 respirator suitable if you don’t think you are exhaling any viral particles? The simple answer is no. Because the window during which you could be contagious before experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 is so wide, you can never be positive that you are not transmitting the virus. 


This is true even if you have been fully vaccinated, thanks to more virulent strains of the virus that have recently emerged. The CDC confirmed this summer that even vaccinated individuals can transmit COVID-19.


In the times of the coronavirus, it’s best to ditch 3M N95 respirators with exhalation valves. Furthermore, the surge in COVID-19 cases attributed to the delta variant is likely to stress supply chains for healthcare workers once again. 


This is why the CDC recommends that most people wear a more basic face mask, such as a multi-use fabric mask, single-use ear loop mask or KN95 mask. Each of these options have shown to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 with the KN95 mask offering the same level of protection as a 3M N95 respirator. 


3M N95 Respirators in the Healthcare Field


But what if you are in the healthcare field? Is there ever a situation in which a 3M N95 respirator with an exhalation valve would be appropriate, even amid shortages? As stated earlier, it can be next to impossible to know if you are transmitting the virus even if you feel fine, but we understand the need to optimize the supply of 3M N95 respirators among healthcare staff. 


Seeing as healthcare workers tend to be monitored for symptoms of COVID-19 more closely than the general public, those who are healthy could wear a valved 3M N95 respirator with very little consequence. When N95 respirators and surgical masks are in short supply, healthcare workers should consider single-use ear loop masks (which can be bolstered with a clear face shield).


Are You...Healthcare WorkersNon-Healthcare Workers
Sick N95 Respirator w/o Valve Multi-Use Cloth Face Mask or
Single-Use Earloop Face Mask
Not Sick N95 Respirator with Valve Multi-Use Cloth Face Mask or
Single-Use Earloop Face Mask
Not Sure N95 Respirator w/o Valve Multi-Use Cloth Face Mask or
Single-Use Earloop Face Mask

NOTE: If you are a healthcare worker and are sick, the CDC recommends that you stay home so you won’t put others at risk.


Conney Safety carries both valved and non-valved N95 respirators from both 3M and a variety of suppliers, including:

N95 respirators without valve

N95 respirators with valve


Having each of the 3M N95 respirators on hand will ensure you always have the right protection for every situation.


N95 vs. KN95
What’s the difference between these two professional-grade respirators?


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