Mask vs. Respirator: What's The Difference?

Prior to the global pandemic, personal protective equipment (PPE) was not a popular commodity worldwide. Although prevalent in some areas of the world, it certainly wasn’t typical to walk into a grocery store, a restaurant, or a shopping center wearing any form of PPE on your face. Now, wearing PPE is about as normal as wearing a hat. It is a highly desired accessory that complements our everyday attire and whose use has become widespread and normalized around the globe.

Although the world has become better acquainted with PPE, the words ‘mask’ and ‘respirator’ are still being used interchangeably far too often. This results in a great deal of confusion amongst the general public. To put it simply, masks and respirators are not the same thing. The question that needs to be answered then; what’s the difference?

Inform Yourself

Although many have become more accepting of wearing PPE, most still remain unsure and seek to better understand what is that we should be wearing, and why. When shopping for PPE, we need to know what to look for. Being more informed about which PPE is most effective is extremely important in securing proper and satisfactory protection against infection. 

There is a great deal of information out there about PPE, arguably too much to consume, but a good question to start with is should one purchase a mask or a respirator? To adequately answer this question is to examine the fundamental difference between the two

Our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Peter Maric covered this topic in-depth in this interview.

Mask vs. Respirator

There are many different kinds of masks and respirators on the market and each is slightly different. 

Generally, procedural and surgical masks are thin, loose-fitting, and disposable. The main purpose of these masks is to protect those around the wearer from large particles and droplets emitted by the wearer. Thus, masks are intended to predominantly provide a one-way level of protection, which is specifically to protect others from droplets expelled by the person who is wearing the mask. Typically, masks offer significantly less protection to the wearer themselves, since they are loose fitting and there is little stopping the particles from making their way both through, and around, the mask itself to protect the wearer.

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A respirator on the other hand is designed to protect the wearer from inhaled particles, including the infectious droplets of other people. Respirators accomplish this in two main ways: filtration and seal. The filter is designed to remove a high percentage of particles from the air, while the seal between the respirator and face prevents leakage around the filter. This combination is designed to restrict airborne particles from entering the wearer's nose, mouth and ultimately, lungs.

Depending on the type of respirator used, a respirator can also offer the ability to provide two-way protection, to both the wearer and others around them. With proper use of a respirator, by protecting the wearer, that person is less likely to become infected with an illness, and therefore less likely to spread it to others. If the respirator has one way exhalation valves, the droplets of the person wearing the respirator can still be spread, so capturing those exhaled droplets may be important in settings such as healthcare.

Protect Yourself 

No matter how well designed, no mask or respirator provides a hundred percent protection against any virus or illness. Generally, respirators are superior to masks in providing protection because of their ability to seal the mask to your face and filtrate smaller particles. The respirators that most are familiar with are not always highly accessible, nor are they recommended for use by the general public. It is for this reason that individuals tend to opt for more accessible alternatives and in exchange sacrifice their overall protection.

Regardless of which PPE you choose, what is most important is that you wear it appropriately and remove and dispose of it appropriately as well. Hand washing after the use and disposal of your mask is essential for proper protection.

These are unprecedented times and we have to embrace proper protocols related to wearing PPE so that we can keep others and ourselves healthy and safe. So, be sure to wear your PPE, dispose of it properly, and stay home if you are feeling sick.