What is a Respirator Mask Used For?

While respirators and face masks have always been a crucial part of healthcare gear, the coronavirus pandemic has shoved them into the spotlight. While many people have been using the term "respirator mask," respirators and masks are actually two distinct pieces of equipment.

Read on to learn everything you need to know about the difference between respirators and face masks.

respirator masks and surgical face masks on wooden table

Respirators vs. Masks: Purpose

While some people use the terms interchangeably, respirators and masks are different, even though they appear similar and are both worn over the mouth and nose. The purpose of wearing a respirator is to protect the wearer from inhaling infectious or dangerous particles. Doctors and nurses who treat highly contagious patients use respirators. On the other hand, masks protect other people from the wearer's germs. Masks act as a barrier that stops droplets from coughs and sneezes emitted by the wearer. But, they cannot filter out many particles exhaled or emitted by other people.

woman putting on protective face mask

Respirators vs. Masks: Fit

Because of their different purposes, respirators and protective face masks fit differently. Respirators are stiffer and thicker, molded into a cup shape that fits tightly against the face. They come in different sizes so that a user can choose the best mask for their face. A seal check is necessary to ensure proper fit. The respirator presses very tightly against the skin and often leaves doctors and nurses with deep lines in their faces after a shift. On the other hand, surgical masks are made of several lighter layers that are more flexible. Masks conform to the face much easier than respirators. They have a looser fit, and a seal check is not necessary.

Respirators vs. Masks: Regulations

Because of their varying uses, respirators and face masks are actually regulated by different bodies (at least in the United States). The National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) evaluates, tests and certifies respirators. Performance requirements for respirators include filter efficiency and breathing resistance. Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees surgical masks. The manufacturer submits information about the mask, and the FDA compares it to other masks that have already been cleared.

Respirators vs. Masks: Filtration

The reason that respirators need to be tested by the NIOSH is that they offer different levels of filtration. As the name suggests, N95 respirators collect at least 95% of the challenge particles during tests. Respirators rated 99 collect at least 99%, and 100 respirators collect at least 99.97% of all challenge particles. Surgical masks do not offer this same level of protection. You might also see some letters attached to respirator names. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, respirators are rated “N,” if they are not resistant to oil, “R” if they are somewhat resistant to oil and “P” if they are strongly resistant to oil (oil proof). Thus, there are nine classes of respirators:

  • N-95, N-99 and N-100;
  • R-95, R-99 and R-100;
  • P-95, P-99 and P-100

R and P masks are more common in industrial applications, where people are more likely to be working with oil-based chemicals that could degrade the performance of an N-class respirator. This is also why you hear N respirators mentioned mostly in healthcare settings. Oil-based particles aren’t so much of a concern in these environments.

discarded surgical masks in the trash

Respirators vs. Masks: Disposal

One thing that respirators and protective face masks have in common is that they are designed to be discarded after one use. Ideally, nurses, doctors and other healthcare workers should dispose of their N-95 respirators after each patient, but the recent protective gear shortages have made that impossible in many scenarios. To safely discard a respirator, place it in a plastic bag, seal it up, put it in the trash and wash your hands. To sum up, here are the similarities and differences between respirators and masks:

Respirators Masks
Protect the wearer Protect other people
Tight-fitting Loose-fitting
Certified by the NIOSH Cleared by the FDA
Filter at least 95% of small particles from the air Do not filter small particles
Not meant to be reused Not meant to be reused

Make sure that you choose the right piece of medical equipment to protect both yourself and your patients.