Check to confirm that the product you are considering is certified as a respirator (such as an N95, FFP2, or KN95). Certified respirators contain filtration material capable of capturing particles, including ones that are too small to see with your eyes.
Be sure to select a respirator that can seal against your face without any gaps. To provide respiratory protection, a respirator must fit snugly on the user’s face to ensure there are no gaps between the face and the respirator seal. Even very small gaps between the face and the edge of the respirator allow air, and particles, to go around the filter media. Surgical gauze masks, facemasks, or uncertified “dust” masks typically do not have adequate filtration material and may not be designed to form a seal against the face and therefore may not provide the expected protection to your lungs. Note that some uncertified masks look very similar to certified respirators. It is important to carefully read the information printed on packaging before your purchase a product.
You may have seen on the news or social media images of people with red marks on their face from using the respirators. Sadly, that is how you know there is a seal and it is being worn correctly. Speak to your facility for guidelines on how to properly wear a respirator.
Respirators are designed to help reduce the wearer’s exposure to airborne particles. The primary purpose of a surgical mask is to help prevent biological particles (e.g. bacteria and viruses) from being expelled by the wearer into the environment.
Surgical masks are not necessarily designed to seal tightly to the face, so air might leak around the edges. Many surgical masks are also designed to be fluid-resistant to splash and splatter of blood and other bodily fluids.
Some approved respirators are designed to have the characteristics of both a respirator and a surgical mask. These products are often called “healthcare or medical respirators.” In the U.S., surgical N95 respirators are both approved by NIOSH and cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in surgery.
Regulatory standards often dictate the physical and performance properties that respirator products are required to have in order to obtain certification or approval in a particular country. Standards in different countries or regions may have slightly different requirements for certification or approval of respirators.
Most regulatory standards for FFRs have similar, but not identical, test methods and respirator classes. The most commonly used respirator class descriptor is filtration efficiency. This is the ability of a respirator to filter a specific particle in a controlled laboratory test. Because of similarities in standard requirements, the following respirator classes, from various countries and regions, all have approximately 94-95% filtration efficiency, are designed to form a seal with the face, and may be considered to be functionally similar for most uses against non-oil airborne particles:
Australia/New Zealand - P2 • Brazil - FFP2 • China - KN95, KP95 • Europe - FFP2 • Japan - DS2, DL2 • India - BIS P2 • Korea - 1st class • US NIOSH - N95, R95, P95
A certified respirator is one way to help reduce exposure to fine particles like PM2.5, smoke, soot, bacteria and viruses. However, local recommendations (such as from a local health agency) should be consulted and followed. Often, such guidance indicates exposure should be avoided by staying away from the source of the hazard - such as staying indoors, away from outdoor air pollution, and avoiding sick people - before relying on respiratory protection.
Surgical/procedure or “medical” facemasks are designed to help keep spit and mucous generated by the wearer from reaching a patient or medical equipment. They likely do not provide respiratory protection unless they are designed, tested, and certified as a respirator. To better understand the difference between respirators and surgical masks.
The purpose of a respirator’s exhalation valve is to reduce the breathing resistance during exhale; it does not impact a respirator’s ability to provide respiratory protection. The valve is designed to open during exhalation to allow exhaled air to exit the respirator and then close tightly during inhalation, so inhaled air is not permitted to enter the respirator through the valve.
While a valve does not change a respirator’s ability to help reduce a wearer’s exposure to bioaerosols, a person who is exhibiting symptoms of illness should not wear a valved respirator, because exhaled particles may leave the respirator via the valve and enter the surrounding environment, potentially exposing other people.
All respirators are designed to help reduce, not eliminate, exposures to airborne hazards. For example, N95-rated FFRs have a filtration efficiency of at least 95% against non-oily particles when tested using the NIOSH criteria. The particles used to test the filtration are in a size range that are considered the most penetrating. Therefore, the test methods ensure that the filter media can filter particles of all sizes with at least 95% efficiency.
It’s important to remember that the filter efficiency alone does not determine the overall reduction in airborne hazards provided by a respirator. There are two other key determinants in reducing exposure: fit and wear time.