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Respirators and Surgical Masks: A Comparison
Because certain disposable respirators are similar in appearance to many surgical/procedure masks, their differences are not always well understood. However, respirators and surgical masks are very different in intended use, fit against the face, wear time, testing and approval. The purpose of this document is to highlight some of these differences.
The biggest difference between a respirator and a surgical mask is the intended use. Respirators are designed to help reduce the wearer’s respiratory exposure to airborne contaminants such as particles, gases or vapors. Particulate respirators may be used to reduce exposure to particles that are small enough to be inhaled - particles less than 100 microns (μm) in size. This includes airborne particles that may contain biological material, e.g. mold, Bacillus anthracis, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the virus that causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), etc.
Surgical masks do not have either adequate filtering or fitting attributes to provide respiratory protection for the wearer. They are designed to help prevent contamination of the work environment or sterile field from large particles generated by the wearer (e.g. spit, mucous). Surgical masks may also be used to help reduce the risk of splashes or sprays of blood, body fluids, secretions and excretions from reaching the wearer’s mouth and nose.
Fit against the face is also an important differentiator. Respirators such as N95 filtering facepieces are designed to seal to the face of the wearer. Therefore most of the inhaled air is drawn through the filter media and not through gaps between the respirator and the wearer’s face. To determine proper fit, wearers must be fit tested to make sure they have selected the appropriate model and size. The wearer must also perform a ‘”user seal check” each time the respirator is worn prior to entering the contaminated environment to check the respirator-to-face seal. Surgical masks are not designed to seal against the face and are not fit tested since the main goal is to help capture large particles expelled by the wearer and to help reduce the wearer’s exposure to splashes. During inhalation, much of the air passes through gaps between the face and the surgical mask.
Respirators must be carefully donned and worn properly the entire time the wearer is in the contaminated area. Surgical masks are frequently worn for specific procedures and then removed.
Government requirements for testing and certifying respirators and surgical masks are substantially different. Respirators must be tested and certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). NIOSH tests particulate respirators under “worst case” conditions to help ensure adequate performance in the work place. The test protocol includes high flow rate, most penetrating particle size, aerosols that may degrade filter material, etc. Filtering facepiece respirators that are approved under these tests must have “NIOSH” and the filter classification printed on them.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not test surgical masks. Rather, the manufacturer provides data and proposed claims to FDA for review.