The Difference Between Medical Masks and Respirators

Will a surgical mask offer protection against smoke from wildfires and other airborne pollution, or do you need a respirator? You’ve probably heard people talk about respirators and face masks, whether we’re facing a potential global pandemic like the coronavirus or catastrophic wildfires causing record-setting smoke & air pollution. However, the difference between the two types of masks is not always clear. Medical face masks and respirators are both capable of providing excellent protection against airborne particulates, but how are they different, and when should you use one or the other?

Medical Face Masks

Face masks are helpful in hospitals, doctor’s offices, and other settings where airborne pathogens are prevalent. Face masks are perfect at preventing bodily fluids containing bacteria and viruses from entering (or leaving) your body. In general, medical masks are capable of safeguarding your mouth and nose from most micro-organisms, which like to hitch rides on airborne water particulates. Face masks are also great at making sure you don’t accidentally touch your lips with germ-infested hands (especially for children!).

Because the design of medical face masks is to stop water droplets, they are generally more likely to be looser fitting, and may leave a gap between the edge of the cover and your skin. Whereas heavier drops of water are less likely to skirt around the edges of the masks, the gaps do make face masks less effective at protecting against smaller particulates that sneak around the edges, even if they would otherwise get caught in the mask fabric itself.

Respirator Masks

Respirator masks are similar to face masks in shape… other than the valves that some respirators contain, they are often indistinguishable. On the other hand, they are much more capable of safeguarding against tiny airborne particulate pollution.

First, the structure of a respirator like the N95 (or KN95) is engineered so the mask fits tightly against the face, reducing the gap which standard face masks have. Industrial-grade respirators leave practically no gap at all, whereas wildfire smoke masks – often designed to reduce pollution down to tolerable levels instead of eliminating it entirely – will trade a small amount of protection in order to save your lungs from the strain of a sealed respirator.

Second, the filtering material in respirators is much more dense, because they are designed to safeguard against pm2.5 particulate pollution created by vehicle exhaust, wildfire smoke, and industrial & agricultural emissions.  Of course, a respirator will also filter larger particulates like germ-carrying water droplets and aerosols.  If you’re using a respirator to protect against germs and viruses, remember the tradeoff with a regular mask is slightly more inhalation resistance, which means respirators should not be used in situations where a regular face mask works just as well. Respirator masks like the N95 are designed for use by healthcare professionals, industrial settings, as well as in polluted outdoor environments. Medical facemasks are more suited to protect against short-term exposure, as well as keeping other people safe from your own sneezes and coughs.

How do I know which is which?

Respirator masks like the N95, N99 or KN95 typically are labelled as such, and should indicate on the mask or the packaging that they are NIOSH-approved. Respirator filters are also available in disposable and reusable versions. Disposable filters can’t be formally certified as N95 compliant since they won’t form a 100% seal, but they can still be capable of reducing a meaningful amount of pollutants. Just take note that in no cases should face masks or respirators be shared.

We hope we explained how masks and respirators differ from one another.