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Mask Essentials Part 4: Masks vs. Respirators - What's the Difference?

In order to spread awareness about the importance of wearing a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic, we have prepared a series of articles designed to provide essential information and guidelines so that you can get the most out of your mask.

Mask Essentials Part 4: Medical Masks vs Respirators

While looking for face protection in the midst of COVID-19, you may have seen the words “mask” and “respirator” often used, or seen the different types of masks people wear in public. In this article, we’ll discuss the purpose of medical masks and respirators, as well as the key differences between them.


Medical Masks

A medical mask is a loose-fitting device often worn by medical professionals when conducting exams or procedures in order to protect from aerosols, sprays, and large-particle droplets of contaminated otherwise hazardous bodily fluids. These types of masks are meant to be water-resistant on the outside, providing a barrier against splashes, droplets, and other fluids such as those released when a person sneezes, coughs, or spits near or directly on the wearer. They also may help reduce exposure of your respiratory droplets to others, and play a large role in the general public in curbing the spread of illnesses spread through respiratory fluids (e.g., COVID-19). However, as medical masks generally have a snug, but not tight, fit, they are not designed to block or effectively filter small airborne particulate matter.

Medical masks comprise of three layers: a melt-blown polymer layer designed to adsorb microbes, sandwiched between two non-woven fabric layers (waterproof outer layer, absorbent inner layer).

In the United States, Medical masks must respect ASTM standards, which have 3 levels of protection, ranked from low to high risk of exposure to fluids.



Respirators, unlike medical masks, are designed to form a tight seal around the nose and mouth in order to protect the wearer from exposure to airborne particles (e.g. biological aerosols including viruses and bacteria), vapors, and gases. In the case of a respirator, the right fit makes all the difference--any leakage resulting from a poor fit can greatly reduce the efficacy of a respirator.  

Respirators are evaluated, tested, and certified by the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) to meet set minimum performance requirements, such as filtration efficiency and breathing resistance. The NIOSH respirator approval regulation defines several classes of filters, and defines the term N95 to refer to a filter class that, during testing, removes at least 95% of airborne particles. NIOSH-approved respirators will often be indicated as such with the NIOSH label and with the type of approval (e.g., N95, N99 - Learn more about respirator classifications here).

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends against wearing N95 respirators for daily/general use or for protecting against respiratory diseases such as COVID-19. Because N95 respirators are in critical need for health professionals, it is recommended that the general public reserve such equipment for health care workers and first responders.