Not long ago, respirators and surgical masks were worn almost exclusively by workers whose jobs required them. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, many kinds of protective face covering became an increasingly common sight in public places. Their visibility raises an obvious question: what's the difference between N95 masks vs. surgical masks vs. respirators vs. dust masks vs. cloth masks? What kind of protection do they offer?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended that people wear cloth face coverings in public to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, regardless of whether they have a fever or other COVID-19 symptoms. In December 2020, the CDC recommended that people wear facemasks whenever they are outside the home, and at home whenever someone in the household has had potential COVID-19 exposure or has been diagnosed with COVID-19.
There is evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted by people who don't have symptoms. In December 2020, the CDC cited estimates that around half of COVID-19 infections are transmitted by people who have no symptoms. Wearing cloth masks helps slow the spread of the virus, which is primarily transmitted from person to person through respiratory droplets produced when we talk, cough or sneeze.
Masks are particularly important in places where social distancing is hard to maintain, especially in areas where there is significant community-based transmission.
- While cloth masks and disposable face coverings can help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other illnesses, they are not considered personal protective equipment (PPE).
- Cloth masks are intended to be cleaned and reused, while disposable face coverings, surgical masks and disposable N95 respirators are not.
- Cloth masks are easy to obtain and simple to make at home. On the other hand, surgical masks and N95 respirators can't be made at home and should be considered critical supplies, according to the CDC.
- Some cloth face coverings have one-way valves or vents that make exhalation easier, but according to the CDC, this type of mask does not prevent the wearer from transmitting COVID-19 to others (source control), and for this reason the CDC does not recommend them.
Surgical masks (also called medical masks) are loose-fitting, disposable coverings for the nose and mouth. They are intended to be worn by healthcare workers. They are fluid resistant and protect the wearer against large droplets, splashes and sprays, according to the CDC. They also capture the wearer's respiratory droplets, helping to protect patients against contamination.
- Surgical masks are not considered respiratory protection. According to the CDC, they don't provide reliable protection from inhaling smaller airborne particles.
- Surgical masks are cleared for use in medical settings by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which evaluates data and claims provided by the mask manufacturer.
- Surgical masks are tested according to standards published by ASTM International as ASTM F2100-19. These standards describe bacterial filtration efficiency, sub-micron particulate filtration efficiency, differential pressure, resistance to synthetic blood and flammability. Medical masks fall into three levels of barrier protection, which are described as follows by healthcare services company Cardinal Health:
- Level 1: low barrier protection
- Level 2: moderate barrier protection
- Level 3: maximum barrier protection
- There are also disposable face coverings that look similar to surgical masks but are not tested for fluid resistance and are not cleared for use in medical settings by the FDA.
N95 respirators are typically disposable and are commonly referred to as filtering facepiece respirators. OSHA defines a filtering facepiece respirator as "a negative pressure particulate respirator with a filter as an integral part of the facepiece or with the entire facepiece composed of the filtering medium."
- Filtering facepiece N95 respirators offer more protection against airborne particles than surgical masks or cloth face covers, because they are intended to be tight-fitting and can filter both large and small particles, including aerosols.
- N95 masks are tested and certified by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to ensure that the filtering facepiece can remove at least 95% of airborne particles.
- N95 are intended to be tight-fitting. Normally, wearers must pass pass a fit test to confirm a proper seal before using one. Due to concerns about a shortage of fit-testing kits and test solutions, OSHA is encouraging employers to prioritize fit-testing for those who must use N95 respirators in high-hazard procedures during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Some manufacturers offer surgical N95 filtering facepiece respirators, which are cleared by the FDA for fluid resistance and also tested and certified by NIOSH as a respirator.
- N95 respirators are not to be worn by the general public as protection from COVID-19 per the CDC, to help optimize the supply for people respirators most.
Elastomeric Respirators: An N95 Alternative
Reusable elastomeric respirators, more commonly seen in industrial settings, can provide protection similar to disposable N95 respirators, according to the CDC, which offers guidance on elastomeric respirators for healthcare practitioners. Elastomoeric respirators can have a half facepiece or full facepiece, and they use replaceable filters to remove particles from the air. They also require cleaning, disinfection and other maintenance. Unlike surgical masks, elastomeric respirators are not cleared by the FDA for fluid resistance.
Dust Masks and Other Disposable Face Coverings
The phrase "dust mask" is used by some people to describe any disposable face mask, including N95 respirators. But dust masks are not necessarily the same as respirators and are often designed to protect the wearer only from irritants that are not toxic, like sawdust or pollen. These "nuisance dust masks" are not tested or certified by NIOSH to offer any level of respiratory filtration. The CDC's guidelines do not discuss nuisance dust masks, and there is no reason to believe that a non-NIOSH-certified nuisance dust mask would offer respiratory protection superior to that of a cloth mask.
Similarly, there are disposable face coverings that resemble surgical masks or medical masks but that are not tested for barrier protection according to ASTM standards and are not cleared for use in medical settings by the FDA.
Tips for Wearing a Cloth Face Mask at Work
Some people may find wearing a face mask uncomfortable when they're doing strenuous work or when they're working in a hot and humid environment. OSHA offers guidance for employers to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 while also protecting employees against heat-related illness. These are some of the best practices that OSHA recommends:
- Employers should make sure new workers and returning workers acclimatize to the working environment while wearing face coverings. (OSHA suggests acclimatizing after a week or more away from work.)
- Employers should prioritize wearing face coverings for workers when they're in close contact with other people, but they may allow workers to remove face coverings when they can safely maintain at least six feet of distance from other people.
- Employers should encourage workers to wear face coverings that fit comfortably and are made of breathable, moisture-wicking materials.
OSHA has published these and other recommendations both for outdoor work (such as in the construction, agriculture or oil and gas industries) and indoor work (such as in the manufacturing and warehousing industries).