Face Masks & Respirators: Choosing the Right Type for the Protection You Need

When it comes to health, we all want the best for ourselves and our families. With Coronavirus (COVID 19) and flu season in full peak, many are seeking out ways to protect themselves from particles in the air that can be infectious. Face masks and respirators are two types of personal protective equipment (PPE) that are used to protect the wearer from liquid and airborne particles that may potentially come in contact with their nose and mouth. Both are a part of an infection-control strategy; however, there are significant differences between the two. Choosing the right mask is critical in helping protect the health and safety for yourself and those around you.

What are Face Masks?

A face mask is a disposable, loose-fitting, and comfortable device that creates a physical barrier between the mouth and nose of the wearer. The mask provides protection from potential contaminants in the immediate environment and may come with or without a face shield. Offered in a variety of thicknesses, some are able to protect more than others when coming into contact with fluids.

A face mask is meant to help block splashes, sprays, or large particle droplets of blood or bodily fluids that may contain bacteria or viruses from reaching the mouth and nose. Face masks also help protect others against infection from the person wearing the mask.

There are two main types of medical face masks; surgical face masks and procedure face masks.

The Difference Between a Surgical and Procedure Face Mask

Clinicians wear a surgical mask when they need to protect themselves and the environment around them from contamination such as fluids and debris in the operating room. Surgical masks usually feature ties so that they can be adjusted for a comfortable fit.

A procedure mask, on the other hand, is typically used as more of an etiquette device to prevent the spreading of germs through talking, sneezing, and coughing. They are also used to protect both a doctor and patient during routine medical procedures such as dental cleaning or physical exams. Procedure masks feature ear loops, making them easy to put on and take off.

According to ASTM, surgical and procedure face masks are offered in 3 different levels of protection. ASTM International is one of the largest standards for the testing of face masks in 5 different areas recognized by the FDA.

What is ASTM?

ASTM refers to the American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM). ASTM is one of the world’s largest international standards organization that develops and publishes technical standards that cover areas such as construction, metal, paints, the environment, consumer products, medical devices and service, and so much more.

ASTM performs a test on the surgical and procedure masks and then assigns a numerical rating for the barrier performance of the material at the follow 3 different levels:

  • Level 1 – Face masks that are ideal for environments that have a low risk of fluid exposure.
  • Level 2 – Face masks that are ideal for environments that have a moderate risk of fluid exposure.
  • Level 3 – Face masks that are ideal for environments that have a high risk of fluid exposure

How Are Face Masks Tested?

The FDA, who oversees the sale and marketing of all surgical masks, recommends that manufacturers demonstrate mask performance in 5 areas:

  1. Fluid Resistance – Test that evaluates the resistance of a medical face mask to the penetration of a small volume of synthetic blood at a high velocity.
  2. Breathability – Test to determine the face mask’s resistance to airflow.
  3. Bacterial Filtration (BFE) – Test that measures the percentage of bacteria (less than 1 micron) filtered out by the mask.
  4. Particulate Filtration (PFE) – Test that measures the percentage of particles larger than 1 micron filtered out by the mask.
  5. Flammability – Test that exposes the face mask material to a flame and measures the time required for the flame to proceed up the material.

Both surgical and procedure face masks may be effective in blocking splashes and large-particle droplets, but they do not block or filter the very small particles in the air during medical procedures. Because of the loose fit  of these types of face masks, they don’t  provide complete protection from germs and other contaminants. A respirator may be a better choice for protection from dusts and microorganisms, as well as other hazardous vapors and fumes.

What is a Respirator?

A respirator is a device worn over the mouth and nose or the entire face to protect and prevent the inhalation of dangerous chemicals and other contaminants. According to OSHA, there are two main types of respirators, as described below.

Atmosphere-Supplying Respirator

An atmosphere-supplying respirator is used in environments with limited or no oxygen or areas with contaminated air. This type of respirator supplies the wearer with clean air directly from another source other than the air around them. A good example of this type of respirator is the Self -Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) that firefighters wear upon entering a building filled with smoke and other hazardous chemicals.

Other industries that would require workers to use an atmosphere-supplying respirator would be welders, pipefitters, municipal road pavers, and industrial plant workers.

Air-Purifying Respirator

An air-purifying respirator, on the other hand, filters out the contaminants in the air around the wearer that is being inhaled. This type of respirator features either filters, canisters, or cartridges that remove the contaminants passing through the purifying element.

The N95 air-purifying repirators are good examples of air-purifying respirators and are often used in hospital settings to protect against transmission of infectious diseases. As you breathe, this respirator cleans and blocks at least 95% of the very small particles out of the air. When properly fitted, this mask does not allow any gaps around the face for contaminants to enter, forcing the air to be pulled through the respirator’s filter material.

These respirators are intended for use in low hazardous areas and do not protect against chemicals, gases, or vapors where you would need to choose an alternate air-purifying respirator, such as a full face gas and vapor respirator.

Can Anyone Wear a Respirator?

Anytime you put a device over your nose and mouth, breathing becomes more difficult. Wearing a respirator may be challenging for those with lung diseases such as emphysema or asthma. Some people with vision problems find it hard to see while wearing a respirator. Luckily, there are special respirators for people who wear glasses.

The N95 respirator can also make breathing more difficult for the elderly and those with chronic respiratory or cardiac conditions. It is advised that children and those with facial hair should not wear this type of respirator as a proper tight fit will be difficult to achieve for the needed protection.

Where to Buy Face Masks and Respirators

At Personally Delivered, we carry a wide range of face masks and respirators. Depending on the environment you are exposed to, determines what type of face mask or respirator you’ll require to breathe safely and be protected from infectious diseases and other hazardous contaminants around you.  Always consult with your doctor about what is best for your specific needs.

For any questions about the face masks and respirators we carry, our Personally Delivered Product Experts are just a phone call away.