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Respirators vs. Face Masks: A Quick and Easy Guide to Particulate Filtering

working with respirator

Respirators vs Face Masks: A Quick and Easy Guide to Particulate Filtering

If you are wondering if you require a respirator or a face mask for certain workplaces or activities, don’t worry. Many people don’t know how to differentiate a mask and a respirator. That’s why we have created the ultimate guide to particulate filtering to help you decide between respirators vs. face masks. There are plenty of similarities and differences between the two. Workers should always use face masks or respirators for protection from contaminants in the air, especially if other hazard control methods are not possible or in place. The decision whether or not you need a face mask or a respirator comes down to your work environment and hazards present. We will help you determine which is best for you: a face mask or a respirator.

What is Particulate Filtering?

Particulate filtering is the process of filtering particles out of the air as you breathe. Certain types of PPE, or personal protective equipment, helps with particulate filtering. Some of these items include masks and respirators. While some people think that masks and respirators provide the same amount of protection against hazardous or dangerous substances, that is not the case. We will break down the differences between respirators and face masks to help determine which you need to keep yourself safe.


Particularly in the era of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, face masks and respirators have become increasingly important. Many companies have pivoted to creating PPE and other industrial safety products meant to safeguard your workplace against the spread of COVID-19.

Similarities Between Face Masks and Respirators

Both face masks and respirators can be worn over your face and nose in order to restrict the amount of particles that you breathe in or out. Both have the ability to protect you from exposure to airborne particles. However, the level to which each can protect you varies.

Is There a Difference Between Face Masks and Respirators?

Yes, there are some major differences between face masks and respirators, though they might look the same.

Face Masks

A face mask is best when worn for comfort against non-toxic, nuisance dusts during activities like mowing, gardening, sweeping, and dusting. However, most face masks do not protect you from many hazardous substances like dust, gases, or vapors.


There are different types of face masks that offer varying levels of protection, but the most common is a surgical mask.

Surgical Masks

A surgical mask is resistant to fluids and provides you with protection against large splashes, droplets, or spray of bodily or other hazardous fluids. It is made to help prevent contamination of the work environment from particles generated by you, the wearer or worker. They also protect the patient from the wearer’s respiratory emissions, hence the term “surgical mask.” They are fairly loose-fitting and disposable, as opposed to respirators.


Respirators are made to help reduce your exposure to airborne contaminants like particles, gases, or vapors. While surgical masks offer a barrier to particles like splashes, droplets, and spit, respirators are designed to seal tightly to your face, which gives you additional protection. The proper seal between your face and the respirator forces the air you inhale to be pulled through the respirator’s filter, which means all the air you breathe while wearing the respirator has been filtered.


In the U.S., respirators must meet standards set by the NIOSH, or National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Like masks, respirators come in a few different varieties. They are marked by their approval rating, like KN95, FFP2, and FFP3. You should choose the best respirator for you based on the hazards to which you are exposed.

KN95 Masks

This type of mask is made of several synthetic material layers. A KN95 mask protects the wearer against at least 95 percent of aerosol particulates.

FFP2 Masks

FFP2 masks, on the other hand, are composed of three layers of synthetic non-woven materials, with the inclusion of filtration layers between. They are available in different thicknesses. A FFP2 mask filters at least 94% of particles. (FFP stands for “filtering facepiece.)

FFP3 Masks

Finally, a FFP3 mask filters at least 99% of particles.

Respirators vs. Face Masks

Let’s break down the similarities and differences between respirators and face masks:


  • A mask is designed for one-way protection
  • The primary design is meant to protect the environment, not the wearer
  • Most do not have a safety rating
  • Does not complete adhere to the wearer’s face and generally has a looser fit than a respirator


  • A respirator has a tighter fit and a much better face seal than a mask
  • Is designed to provide two-way protection, for both the wearer and the environment
  • Typically undergoes stricter testing and safety ratings

Can I Tell the Difference Between a Face Mask and Respirator by Looking at It?

No, you probably won’t be able to tell the difference between a face mask and a respirator simply by looking at it. Typically, a respirator is marked with an approval rating, however, and surgical masks do not have a rating.

Do I Need a Respirator or a Face Mask?

Now, you should know the difference between respirators vs. face masks and how each helps with particulate filtering. The primary difference between a respirator and a face mask is the level of protection they offer.


While a mask does cover your face and nose, and protects you from some airborne contaminants, it is actually meant to protect the environment, not the particles you are breathing. A respirator, on the other hand, is designed to filter the particles that you breathe in and out.


Determining the best choice between respirators vs. face masks comes down to what activity you are doing and what hazardous substances you might be exposed to while working. If you need the maximum protection, you might require a respirator. However, in most instances, a face mask will work, too. The key is to make sure you are wearing the right face mask or respirator whatever task you are doing, and to protect yourself against whichever hazards are present.