With so many products on the market, it can be hard to be sure you’re making the right decision when choosing how to protect yourself, your family, or your employees. We hope this guide will help you choose the mask or respirator that’s right for you.

Masks vs Respirators: what’s the difference?

The main difference between masks and respirators is seal and particle size. Masks act as loose-fitting barriers which can stop sprays, water droplets, and larger particles. They are not designed to seal tightly or filter smaller airborne contaminants, and therefore are not recommended for medical professionals or someone coming into contact with COVID-19. In everyday settings, however, masks are effective at preventing viral spread and are more comfortable and wearable for long periods.

Respirators are PPE items designed to protect against exposure to airborne pathogens such as 

TB, SARS, Anthrax, Hanta virus, and COVID-19. The most common respirators are the N95 and KN95, as these have met national standards in the U.S. and China, respectively. Respirators come in different sizes to fit the wearer’s face and must provide a complete seal, whereas masks may leave small gaps at the cheeks, chin, or bridge of the nose. 

N95 and KN95 respirators are able to filter 95% of particles 0.3 microns or larger. This is key because most bacteria are larger than 0.3 microns, and while viruses can be smaller, they are suspended in water droplets that make them effectively larger. Note however that many KN95 respirators are counterfeit and often do not meet the appropriate standards. Please see the FDAs list for KN95s that are approved for use.

Appendix A: Authorized Imported, Non-NIOSH Approved Respirators Manufactured in China (Updated with Administrative Changes or Respirator Model Removals: October 15, 2020.)

Note: Although they are technically respirators, N95s and KN95s are often referred to as masks. 

Masks: Cloth vs 3-Ply

While masks are less effective than respirators at filtering out small particles, they can protect you from water droplets and help prevent the spread of COVID-19 when worn properly.

3-ply medical masks are made from layers of breathable synthetic fabric and pleated for a more snug fit around the face. They contain a hydrophobic outer layer to repel incoming water droplets, a hydrophilic inner layer to absorb fluids coming from the wearer, and an inner filter to trap particles that may contain viruses or bacteria. Like respirators, they are designed for single use. 

Cloth masks are reusable and made from one or more layers of fabric. They are mainly designed to protect against air pollution or pollen allergy, but relatively ineffective against viruses and bacteria.

Cloth masks may not be as effective as medical grade masks, but any face covering is better than nothing. If choosing a cloth mask, it’s best to go for a multi-layered (3 or more), tightly-woven cotton, as the natural fibers have a more 3-dimensional structure at the microscopic level and are better at stopping particles than smoother synthetic fibers. Cloth masks should also include polypropylene filters to keep out viruses and bacteria.

Respirators: N95 vs KN95

The difference between the N95 and KN95 comes down to regulation, fit, and straps.

N95s are regulated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in the U.S. They use two head straps that go around the head, one under the ears and the other over the crown. KN95s are typically regulated by the Chinese government and often attach via ear loops. In terms of protection from bacteria and viruses, N95s and KN95s are almost identical. They have the same filtration rate and are equally safe. Some N95 masks have exhalation valves that can make it easier to breathe, but these should not be used in sterile environments 

You may find that one type of strap works better for your face shape and size than the other. N95s are known to have a tighter fit and can be more uncomfortable, but also provide better protection for this reason. Some have found the KN95’s ear loops more convenient for putting on and removing. However, beware of KN95s many do not meet the appropriate standards and many are counterfeit. Please see the FDAs list of devices allowed for use under the emergency use authorization.