Masks & respirators - What is the difference?

What is the difference between a respirator and a surgical mask?

An R95 respirator which is different to a surgical mask

An R95 respirator which is different to a surgical mask

Respirators are designed to help reduce the wearer's respiratory exposure to airborne contaminants. Respirators come in various sizes and styles and should be individually selected to fit the wearer's face and to provide a tight seal. A proper seal between the user's face and the respirator forces inhaled air to be pulled through the respirator's filter material, therefore providing protection.

Surgical masks are designed to help prevent contamination of the work environment from large particles generated by the wearer (e.g. to prevent the spread of the wearer's spit or mucous). Surgical masks may also be used to help reduce the risk of splashes or sprays of blood etc. from reaching the wearer's mouth and nose. This is why surgeons will wear surgical masks when undertaking operations. Surgical masks may also be worn by patients to help limit the spread of their infection.1

A surgical mask will not prevent the wearer from getting infected by a virus or bacterial infection that another person has. There is more about TB prevention.

In healthcare respirators protect from exposure to viruses and bacteria. Respirators are designed to seal tight to the face of the wearer. Wearers need to be fit tested to make sure that they are using the correct model and size of respirator to get the best fit.

Surgical masks are not designed to seal tight against the face, and do not have a rating such as R95. Surgical masks are for one time use (one patient encounter).

Can you tell the difference between a respirator and a surgical mask just by looking at it?

The difference is not always immediately apparent. A respirator will be marked with its approval rating (e.g. R95). Surgical masks do not have such a rating, although there are some "surgical masks" that have been rated as respirators (i.e. N95 surgical masks).

The wearer should always be sure that they are wearing the right respirator or mask for the hazards present and the tasks that they are performing.

What does the number on a respirator mean, such as R95

Respirators have a letter and a number. In general the letter in a respirator indicates whether the respirator is resistant to oil. This is mainly a concern in industrial environments. The letter N means that it is not resistant to oil. R means that it is somewhat resistant to oil.

The number refers to the precentage of airborne particles the filter media will catch.

R95 respirators remove at least 95% of airborne particles with a size of 300nm.

R99 respirators remove at least 99% of airborn parti

R100 respirators remove at least 99.97% of airborne particles.

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This page was last updated in February 2020.
Author Annabel Kanabus

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  1. CCOHS Respirators versus Surgical Masks,[]

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