14th May 2020

Types of masks and their purposes

We put up this blog to handle the hundreds of calls, WhatsApps and emails that we’ve been receiving regarding masks.

We noticed that there is much confusion about the different types of masks, the purpose of each and why the prices are so different. Hopefully this blog can provide some clarity so that you can choose the right mask for the right purpose.

1). Surgical masks.

These are the most affordable masks. Normally they sell for few dollars per box of 50 pcs. However, due to the recent outbreak Novel Coronavirus in Wuhan China, the prices have shot up in many countries. Some countries which are manufacturing these masks like China, Vietnam, Taiwan etc. have banned the export of such masks as the demand exceeded the supply.

There are many types and quality of surgical masks and different countries of origin and the prices differ a lot. One key point is to make sure that they are at least 3-ply and the outer layer is water resistant. Generally, the better quality ones will sell for higher prices.

What is the purpose of this mask?

Normally used by dentists, surgeons and service staff. It is effective against the passing on of germs to others. That means when you are sick, you should wear such a mask so as not to transmit the disease to others when you sneeze or cough. The germs are trapped on the inside of the masks and therefore not passed through water droplets when you sneeze/cough.

When travelling in countries like Korea and Japan, you can even see people wearing such masks even on a daily basis. That is because they are sick and are being considerate by not wanting to pass the germs to others. In such cases, a surgical mask is sufficient.

2). KF80, KF94 and N95 masks.

These are the most high end masks. Normally they sell by one piece per pack. During normal time, these masks are selling in pharmacies and convenience stores in Korea at about 1800 wons (cheapest) to 4500 wons, depending on the brand. So the regular price of these masks are already many times that of dental/surgical masks.

Let’s take a closer look. Before the outbreak, let’s say a dental/surgical mask is selling for $10/box of 50 pcs and the KF80/94 masks are selling for 1800 won (cheapest) = $2.50 PER PIECE (not per box). The normal price of dental/surgical mask is $.20/pc and the price of KF80/94 mask is $2.50/pc. It is 10x more than surgical/dental mask.

However, due to the sudden outbreak of Wuhan Coronavirus in China, the prices of these masks have gone up substantially as demand surged and supply dried up.

What is the purpose of these masks and why are they so much more expensive than surgical masks even during normal time?

Such masks undergo very high standard of testing quality to meet the KF standard (in Korea) or N95 standard (most popular brand is 3M). The material used is also different. The design and functionality is also different.

The N95 standard is a designation given to a mask that when subjected to stringent testing, it blocks out at least 95% of very fine (0.3 microns) test particles. This type of mask can be recognised by a rigid dome shape and a strong elastic band.

When properly fitted, it is most effective than most other masks. The condition is “when properly fitted”.

It is used mostly by medical staff fighting an outbreak at the frontline or caregivers in very close contact with patients. It is also used in industry by workers who are working in highly contaminated environment like a spray painting plant. It is also effective against haze like PM2.5 very fine dust.

The user breathes inside a protective dome with the air being filtered by the rigid dome.

However, there are several problems when used by the general population:

1). It is not easy to get a tight fit unless the user has been trained how to properly use it. So for a casual user who uses it once in the while, the mask may not be fitted properly.

2). It is too bulky to carry around. If it is used in a healthcare environment/factory, there is no such problem. But if it needs to be carried around outdoor, then this becomes an issue.

3) To get the best protection, the fit must be very tight. And the average users find it uncomfortable to use for many hours.

That’s why Korea came up with their own designs and standards. The design and standards are suitable for daily use by the general population.

The Korean standard is called KF which stands for Korea Filter standard.

According to Korean FDA, KF 80 means that the mask has been tested for capture efficiency of above 80% for 0.6 micron test particles. It is created for elderly people and people who have difficulty breathing.

KF 94 and KF99 is for capture efficiency of above 94% and 99% respectively for 0.4 micron test particles. The bigger the number, the higher the efficiency in capturing tests particles. This is achieved by having denser fibers. However, there is a downside to this. The denser the fibre and the higher the capture efficiency, the more difficult it is to breathe through.

Since the KF standard is for the general purpose use, it is deemed not necessary to have too dense a filter and so 0.4 micron and 0.6 micron capture efficiency is sufficient. When used for virus capture, the virus don’t float in the air like fine dust. They are contained in water droplets much bigger than PM 2.5. So if the filter can capture PM 2.5, then its good enough for capturing virus in water droplets.

Below is a summary of the pros and cons of KF80, KF94 and KF99.

KF80: Easier to breath but capturing efficiency is lower. For elderly and people with breathing difficulties. The lower capture efficiency is deemed not so critical because elderly people and people with breathing difficulties do not normally interact as much with average person so their risk is lower.

KF94: Capturing efficiency is higher than 80 but slightly more difficult to breath. However, for the average healthy person, this is the recommended standard as most people would have no difficulty in using this mask.

KF99: Highest capturing efficiency but most difficult to breathe. Hence not recommended for daily use and not popular at all.

In terms of design, the KF standard have several differences over the N95 masks. These are:

1). KF masks all can be flattened. So they are easy to carry inside pocket or handbag. The dome-shaped N95 is more suited for indoor use and not so portable, especially if you’re going to carry several around whole day.

2). KF masks are easier to use. Most of these masks have a strap like the dental/surgical masks. Many have additional straps to tighten securely around the face. Compared to N95 which uses a very thick rubber band (which is very good for security) but too tight for average user to use for long time.

Here’s a summary of the different types of masks, their prices and their applications:


In view of the shortage of masks right now and the prices that are going up, we recommend the following:

1). Don’t panic and buy masks to hoard. This will further increase shortage and jet up prices. The worst case scenario is that people who need the masks most may end up not being able to get masks.

2). Don’t buy too many masks. Buy just what you need and a mixture of both cheap and expensive types.

3). Use the cheap masks like dental/surgical masks for daily use and when you’re not in close contacts with patients or sick people. Or use the masks when you’re sick so that you don’t pass on germs to others. E.g in a household, the sick person should wear dental/surgical mask.

4). Get some of the more expensive masks for special occasions like when in over-crowded places and in close contact with people like inside lift, subway, plane, attend meetings etc.

Editor’s note: We have compiled the above information from a variety of sources including Korean sources as accurately and as current as we can. If you have any feedback, please email to kliig@iconic.com.sg.