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Face masks and respirators

When a pandemic is ongoing, limiting the infectious spread as much as possible is absolutely pivotal in order to protect individuals in risk groups as well as health services everywhere. In the case of the coronavirus outbreak, droplet spread is the biggest challenge, and so both face masks and respirators can be beneficial infection control measures..

face mask

What are face masks?

Face masks are also referred to as medical masks, protective masks or surgical masks. They are basic infection control equipment, made up of protective paper or other non-woven material that covers the nose and mouth, and are most typically worn by healthcare personnel during surgeries or in other sterile or infectious environments. Face masks are created specifically to catch the bacteria in the droplets from the mouth and nose of the wearer.

It’s important to be aware that face masks are not protective against airborne diseases, either bacterial or viral.

What are respirators?

Respirators are personal protective equipment. They’re designed to protect the wearer from infection or other particles in the air. Respirators are used for a range of different work tasks, ranging from medical to construction, and so they come in different types. Each type of respirator uses a different technique for purifying the air that’s inhaled, and we’ll take a look at this a little further down in this article. A respirator covers the face and nose of the wearer, but in addition to making sure he or she doesn’t contaminate their environment, it also protects them from outside infection or contamination.

What kinds of face masks and respirators are there?

Face masks Face masks are pretty standard pieces of infection control equipment. They are loosely fit, and made from paper or other material (not fabric), which means they should be discarded after each use. Although face masks all look about the same, there is a substantial difference in how efficient they are in catching the droplets of the wearer. According to the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) in the US, a face mask can be situated anywhere between 10 % and 90 % in what’s referred to as collection efficiency.

Generally speaking, face masks are made up of three layers of their manufacturing material. Depending on the design and quality of material, the face mask will have more or less leakage, i.e. higher or lower collection efficiency. Once again, it’s important to point out that the main purpose of face masks is to collect droplets from the wearer, and not to protect the wearer from other people’s droplets.


Respirators are considerably more protective than face masks, because they are two-way functional. The equipment serves to both prevent droplets of the wearer from coming out, but also droplets or particles from others from coming in. Respirators are manufactured with several types of air filtration methods.


Air-purifying respirators have a filter component that passively filters out particles that pass through the mask’s air intake. They are used against particles, gas and vapours. Some air-purifying models are intended for single-use (such as the N95), while others are more heavy-duty and so multiple-use.

Mechanical filters

Respirators with mechanical filters are designed to filter out particles such as dust (and so are often used by woodworkers or construction workers). The idea here is to stop the contaminants from even reaching the mouth of the person wearing the respirator. Plastic, glass, cellulose, wool, or combinations are often used as filter material. The filters cannot be cleaned, and so respirators with mechanical filters are generally disposable.

Chemical cartridges and powered air-purifiers

Respirators also come with chemical cartridges and air-purifiers that are powered. These are the most heavy-duty respirators on the market, because they actually remove contaminants, like glass, vapour or volatile organic compounds (VOPs), from the wearer’s airflow.

Who needs face masks and respirators?

Face masks are used as a preventative measure of infection control across the world, and most typically in Asia, where people who are symptomatic wear the masks to prevent spread of their own droplets. Still, face masks are not strictly necessary so long as other efforts, like distancing, careful personal hygiene and self-isolation when symptomatic, are implemented. Still, they can be a good supplement to these steps.

Face masks are, however, necessary for healthcare workers in contact with suspected or infected patients during the spread of a disease. They limit the chance of spread considerably and are part of WHOs recommendation for those treating or caring for sick individuals.

Respirators are primarily used in situations where particle contamination is a genuine concern, such as construction, hazardous areas or work tasks with high risk of infection spread (like medical research on vaccines for a new disease).

Face masks and respirators during the coronavirus outbreak

Face masks and respirators are sold out across the globe as people everywhere are doing what they can to limit their chances of catching the coronavirus. This has caused shortages in healthcare facilities, and WHO continues to recommend that face masks should be worn by individuals who are symptomatic. Healthy individuals should take other preventative steps to limit the spread of COVID-19, such as keeping their distance from others, staying at home when possible, and washing their hands often and carefully.

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