Home SAFETY PRODUCTS What Is The Difference Between Face Coverings, Respirators and Medical Masks?

What Is The Difference Between Face Coverings, Respirators and Medical Masks?

A National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) study once found that healthcare workers may be hesitant to wear a respirator if it’s “not part of the protocol.”  Most healthcare workers have historically preferred to wear a surgical mask.  Once Covid-19 hit, however, the popularity of respirators, especially N95 Masks, skyrocketed. 

So, what’s the difference between respirators and surgical masks?  And what exactly are face coverings? Let us find out!

All You Need to Know About Face Coverings

Face coverings are the easiest to decipher. Anything that covers your face constitutes a face covering.  It could be cotton or nylon, it be could thick or thin, just literally anything worn on your face to potentially filter the air you breathe can be termed as a face covering.  As you may have guessed, it is the most minimal filtration/protection possible.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), face covering like cloth masks are made from a variety of fabrics with many types available. They come with multiple tightly woven layers of breathable fabric.

The CDC recommends testing your cloth mask by holding it up to a bright light source. If the light get’s through, it isn’t ideal for protection.  The CDC also recommends not wearing masks with exhalation valves or vents. It also advises against single layer masks made from thin fabric.

Face coverings for public use aren’t regulated by any recognized organization and are therefore not considered certified PPE as they don’t protect the wearer from contaminants. Only medical cloth masks are regulated by the FDA. 

All You Need to Know About Surgical Masks

A surgical mask is also known as a medical mask is designed as per elevated production specifications and quality assurance processes during and after manufacturing. These masks help prevent airborne transmission of infections from one person to another.

Surgical masks are comparatively loosely fitted than respirators and cover your nose and mouth. Unlike respirators they are disposable, one time use masks and are available in the following varieties –

  • Dental masks
  • Laser masks
  • Isolation masks
  • Surgical masks
  • Medical procedure masks

Wearing a surgical mask offers protection to others against the large particles coming out of your mouth and nose as you breathe or speak. These masks are also known to protect your mouth and nose by blocking spray and splashes. Hence it is a common practice for patients, workers, and healthcare professionals to wear surgical masks. However, they don’t offer protection against airborne contaminants or small particles.

Surgical masks cannot prohibit the passage of dust, smoke, gas, and sprays and therefore do not offer the same level of protection as a respirator.

While surgical masks are often confused with face masks, the US Food and Drug Administration states that surgical masks may come with or without a face shield. These devices are called face masks, although not all face masks are regulated as surgical masks. 

All You Need to Know About Respirators

A respirator is essentially a protective gear that is worn on the face to shield the wearer against toxic air. Respirators come in various shapes and sizes, which makes it essential that you do a fit test to determine its effectiveness for you. To begin with, you must wear a respirator that fits the shape of your face for perfect isolation. An airtight respirator prevents the air from going through the gaps. This will ensure that any air you inhale is going through the filtering material of the respirator.

When using respirators in your workplace, make sure they’re NIOSH-approved. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), workers can wear respirators to protect their lungs from all kinds of threats such as smogs, exhaust, emissions, air pollution, steam, vapor, fumes, and more.

You must also make sure that your respiratory protection program follows the 29 CFR 1910.134 rules. According to these rules, “employers must develop and maintain a written respiratory protection program with required worksite-specific procedures and elements for required respirator use.” 

Respirators are filtering face pieces with a variety of designations to indicate the level and type of filtration.  The most well-known type is N95.  Also available are N99, N100, P95, P99, P100, R95, R99 and R100.  But the N95 Respirator mask is the most popular. 

Type of Respirator Designated Use Reuse Capability Efficiency Level Implication
N Not resistant to oil N Masks can be reused for up 3 days 100 The filter is expected to trap 99.97 particles out of every 100
R Resistant to oil R Masks can only be used for a span of up to 8 hours at a stretch 99 The filter is expected to trap 99 particles out of every 100
P Oil Proof P Masks must be reused as per the manufacturer specified limitation 95 The filter will trap 95 particles out of every 100

A filter or a respirator mask with efficiency level 100 is known as a High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter. 

Difference between Respirators and Surgical Masks

As is evident, Respirators and Surgical masks are not the same, neither in the make and design nor in the purposes that they serve. Knowing the difference between the two is imperative, especially for those working in highly infectious environments such as hospitals and other health care centers. When it comes to safety, having the right kind of personal protective equipment is key!


While respirators protect from exposure to airborne particles as well as biological aerosols including viruses and bacteria, surgical masks simply protect against splashes, droplets, and spit.


While respirators are designed to seal tight to the wearer’s face and need to be purchased in the appropriate size, surgical masks are not designed to fit snuggly and come in a one size fits all model.


Respirator masks can be chosen on the basis of their filter efficiency which is categorized as 95, 99 and 100 as discussed above. Hence, it can be conveniently said that respirator masks provide complete safety from aerosols and other small particles. The same cannot be said for surgical masks as they are not designed to filter small particles.  

Masks and Respirators FAQs

Q: Are face masks effective against COVID-19?

A: Yes, they are! The CDC advises wearing face masks in public when you can’t maintain social distance. COVID-19 patients can also wear them to limit the virus from spreading. Healthy people can wear these masks to protect against large droplets as well.

In industrial environments, respirators are more effective than normal masks. So, when you’re exposed to harmful chemicals and gases, wear a respirator to protect yourself and your workers.

Q: How safe are face masks, surgical masks, and respirators?

A: They’re all safe to wear. When you wear them properly, they protect you and others from spreading the infection. Check out the Consideration for Wearing Masks and Using PPE.

Health care professionals wear FDA-certified surgical masks without any trouble. If you’re concerned about wearing masks, consult your healthcare provider.

Q: Should you wear face masks, respirators, or cloth coverings?

A: It’s necessary to wear face masks at all times. Of course, surgical masks are better than cloth face coverings at providing protection as they protect you from others and others from you. Hence, as a general rule don’t wear cloth face coverings when surgical masks or respirators are available.

Q: What is the N95 respirator?

A: The N95 Filtering Facepiece Respirator (FFRs) is a type of respirator that filters 95% of airborne particles. It’s a PPE that fits your face contour and forms a protective barrier to filter the air. Certified N95 provides a higher level of protection than other masks.

The other type of N95 respirator is the surgical N95 respirator (N95s), which is used in highly infectious environments.

Q: How long can you wear a face mask, cloth mask, or respirator?

A: You can use an N95 respirator for up to 8 hours. It’s also recommended to use several respirators and rotate them every 72 hours. However, all FDA-cleared N95 respirators are labeled as “single-use,” disposable devices.

Surgical masks are generally disposable and you shouldn’t wear them once used.

Some cloth masks are washable, and you may use them several times before discarding them.

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