Masks vs. Respirators
COVID-19 has forced us all to become better acquainted with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). However, there continues to be ambiguity about the terms ‘mask’ and ‘respirator’. What’s the difference between a mask and a respirator? Should one purchase a mask or a respirator? In this article, we examine the fundamental difference between the two.
What’s the difference between a mask and a respirator?
Prior to COVID-19, the term masks generally referred to surgical masks. Surgical or procedural masks are used by healthcare workers to protect patients. These are thin, loose-fitting (and hence comfortable), and disposable. They are made from fabric with filter layers to remove large particles and droplets emitted by the wearer. They provide one-way protection i.e. they protect others from droplets expelled by the person who is wearing the mask. They offer significantly less protection to the wearer. Their loose design can not stop particles from making their way both around the mask.
On the other hand, a respirator is designed to protect the wearer from inhaled particles. Respirators are typically used by industrial workers to protect themselves from aerosolized particles and other harmful pollutants at work. Respirators achieve this with a tight seal that prevents leakage around the face. These are typically made from plastic with a silicone seal. Inhaled air is filtered through removable filter cartridges. The filter restricts airborne particles from entering the wearer's nose, mouth, and ultimately, lungs. Respirators usually have one way exhalation valves. While these allow the wearer to breathe more comfortably, the droplets of the person wearing the respirator can still spread. So while respirators protect the wearer, they do not protect others from the wearer.
Should you buy a mask or a respirator?
If your objective is to minimize COVID-19 transmission, you would want a mask or respirator that offers the ability to provide two-way protection, to both the wearer and others around them. To do this,
- The mask/respirator should create a tight seal along the contours of your face.
- It should filter out exhaled air. Hence, do not opt for masks/respirators with exhalation valves.
- It should use a high-grade filter that can keep virus/bacteria particles out. Look for masks/respirators with a high Bacterial Filtration Efficiency (BFE) i.e. higher than 95% for particles > 3 μm.
- It should be super breathable. Look for masks/respirators with a low differential pressure (ΔP) i.e. less than 29.4 Pa/cm².
Regardless of the design, no mask or respirator provides 100% protection against any virus or illness. It is most important that you wear your mask appropriately. Wash/Sanitize your hands before touching the mask. Ensure that the mask covers your mouth and nose. Also, use the bendable nose strips to minimize the gaps between the mask and your face.