Masks and respirators have become very important in today’s world. With the outbreak of COVID-19, people are encouraged more and more to protect themselves through these. The World Health Organization strictly advises people to wear a respirator or a mask as much as possible. Therefore, it is important to educate oneself about these so that you know what to wear and when.

Most people are still oblivious as to what are the differences between surgical masks and respirators – apart from the fact that the latter is pricier than the former. There is a lot more to it. Both are designed for specific purposes which are very different from one another.

You see these being used in hospitals, at engineering sites and in hazardous plants. A different kind of mask or respirator is to be used as per the requirement. Companies even make wearing them a part of their SOPs, so you can bet that they are big deal. That is why we need to have all the information we can about them, especially during a pandemic.

This article is dedicated to teaching you all there is to know about surgical masks and respirators, and the differences between the two. We hope you get a good understanding of what mask to wear once you have read this article. Without further ado, let us jump into it.

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#1. Respirators keep out while surgical masks keep in

Surgical masks prevent particles from reaching the outside. As such, a surgical mask can help a sick person to keep their germs to themselves. These germs may be the cause of a mild cough or a deadly virus. They don’t need a filter or something to do this. That is why they aren’t as chunky as respirators. Their main function is to keep others safe from the germs that spread through coughs and sneezes. However, there are limitations as to what kinds of coughs and sneezes you can use surgical masks for.

On the flip side, respirators prevent the germs outside from reaching you. The only thing they need to let pass is oxygen so that you can still breathe. The way they work is by making use of a filter. This specialized filter cleans the incoming air that you suck for oxygen. It prevents most germs from passing through so that you get clean oxygen and nothing more.

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#2. Respirators can be reused while surgical masks cannot

Respirators are generally used more than once. But stress needs to be put on the “more than once” part. This doesn’t mean that you can use a respirator, wash it out and then wear it again countless times. Using a respirator 3-5 times is recommended. And this number holds only if you do not go to an area where there is contamination. If you do go to such an area, then you can reuse the respirator only once more, and even that is not recommended.

On the other hand, it is advised not to wear a surgical mask more than once, regardless of where you go with it. After that, it needs to be disposed of. Thereby, in the grand scheme of things, you’re effectively paying about the same amount even though a respirator is more expensive – you can buy 5 surgical masks or 1 respirator. It’s the functionality that really differentiates the two.

However, you must keep in mind that only one person can use one respirator or surgical mask. The same mask or respirator cannot be used by anyone else, even if he or she is healthy.

#3. Respirators filter small particles while surgical masks filter large ones

Respirators that can collect about 95% of the challenging aerosols outside have a 95 rating. These are the N95 and the KN95 masks. Those that collect 97.5% of the harmful particles have a 97.5 rating – the N97 and the KN97 masks. Such respirators have a specialized filter that can collect particles that are 0.3 microns in size or larger.

But don’t let it fool you because this doesn’t mean that the P100 mask saves you from 100% of harmful particles. That isn’t possible. The P100 filters out 99% of the particles.

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A surgical mask, on the other hand, is not able to filter out any of these small particles when air is breathed in. That is why they don’t have any sort of rating either. They are more likely to save people from larger particles such as blood droplets, splashes and sprays. Hence, discard them after use.

#4. Respirators are verified by NOISH while surgical masks verified by FDA

These details are a bit more on the nerdy side but are important to note because they define authenticity of the mask/respirator.

Respirators are tested and evaluated by the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NOISH). This organization is responsible for the filter management, performance requirements and breathing efficiency. A genuine respirator will have the NOISH logo and the manufacturer’s name on it, along with the type of approval. Do check for these before you pick one up.

Surgical masks are verified by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They examine and review a surgical mask and all its data is also claimed by them. If a manufacturer offers their surgical masks to the FDA, they are compared with the masks that have already been cleared as a test of their reliability. FDA does not leave a marking on individual surgical masks, but you can still find FDA approved masks if you pick up an entire box of them.

verified by FDA
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Surgical masks and respirators have more differences than they have in common. However, it is safe to say that respirators offer better protection and are thus superior to surgical masks. In nutshell, you should use respirators whenever you can instead of surgical masks. However, the least you can use is a surgical mask so you should have one in any case.