Everything you need to know about masks and respirators

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When we think about masks and respirators, one question always comes to mind. 

Do I need one?

There is no straight answer to this question. Well, masks and respirators can protect you from bacteria, viruses and airborne particles. But it doesn’t mean that you should go out and buy a respirator for yourself. 

Most people don’t need special masks or respirators. If you’re not a healthcare worker there’s a good chance that you don’t need any of these things. There is a lot of confusion around this topic. 

This article will enlighten you with everything you need to know about masks and respirators. You’ll find out everything from types of masks and respirators to proper disposal of them.

Mask and Respirator: The Basic Know-how

Masks and respirators are designed to protect you from airborne particles and liquids. These things are used to protect you from any kind of virus or bacteria. 

Before we go into details let’s know about the basics of masks and respirators.

What is the Mask?

Masks are loose-fitting medical devices. These disposable devices work as a wall between the mouth and nose of the user. A mask can protect you from potentially dangerous contaminants. 

All masks have 2 ear loops around the ear. These loops hold the mask in place. Note that all masks are not surgical masks (we’ll get into surgical masks later). 

You should use masks only one time. They’ll capture large particles or droplets exiting from the user. For example, when you cough while using a mask the droplets don’t spread to the environment.

However, face masks are only a precautionary method that’ll help you in situations where you can’t maintain social distance. 

Example- surgical masks, homemade masks.

What is the Respirator?

A respirator is a tight-fitting mask. Respirators create a facial seal protecting you from any kind of virus, bacteria or any kind of microbial element. 

If you properly use and seal a respirator it’ll give you two-way protection. It will filter air when you inhale and exhale. Although there are a few differences between the types of respirators.

Respirators come in three types:

  1. Disposable Respirators

Disposable respirators have 2 straps to hold them in place. Additionally, they have a metal nose piece and safety designation with a NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) seal. 

Health workers and construction workers widely use disposable respirators. These masks protect fire workers, paramedics and emergency response teams against airborne pathogens. 

When worn properly they have very high efficiency. Nonetheless, you need to get a fit to have an accurate and properly fitted respirator for your face.

  1. Half Face/Full-Face Respirator

These respirators are non-disposable. To provide extra protection, they have 2 sets of straps, a mouthpiece, and 2 filter pieces. 

Half face respirators cover the nose and mouth area. In contrast, full-face respirators cover your entire face. These respirators have an extra benefit. 

Whenever you need to change the filters and cartridges you can do it very easily. Unlike disposable respirators, you don’t have to replace the entire thing. 

3 Types of Masks and Respirators

There are mainly 3 types of masks and respirators. But don’t get the idea that using any one of these will protect you from everything. Each of these masks has its own purposes. 

Type 1: Surgical Masks

Surgical masks are face masks that are used by doctors and health-care workers. While they are less effective than respirators, these masks can provide the protection doctors need.

Purposes It Serves

  • Surgical masks can stop droplets of liquid. Most viral infections are spread through these small droplets. This is why doctors and healthcare workers are advised to wear these whenever they are in contact with a confirmed or possibly infected patient. 

  • Surgical masks provide 60 to 80 percent filtration.  

  • These masks can form an effective barrier from many particles when worn properly. They can protect the wearer from sprays or splashes. 

  • Surgical masks can help to reduce exposure to saliva and respiratory secretions.

  • Some surgical masks have a clear, wraparound shield for the eyes, cheeks, and forehead.

What You Can’t Expect from It?

  • You can’t use a surgical mask multiple times. Surgical masks are one-time use only as they become contaminated once you wear them. 

  • They can’t guarantee you 100% protection. Surgical masks have a looser fit which makes them somehow vulnerable to viruses and bacterias. 

  • Surgical masks can prevent you from spreading disease. However, it can’t prevent someone healthy from contracting a disease.

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Type 2: N95 Respirators

An N95 respirator is a tight-fitting mask that is more effective than a surgical mask. N95 masks provide effective protection when properly. 

However, these masks are not perfect for children and people with a beard. They simply don’t have the facial structure. Without a tight seal, you won’t get the appropriate protection.

The word N95 has an important meaning. The ‘N’ means ‘not resistant to oil’ as the mask only protects from particles, not fluids. The 95 means it provides you a 95 percent protection against airborne particles. 

Purposes It Serves

  • These masks are most effective when dealing with any dangerous airborne particles. They are able to block particles that are 0.3 microns.

Let me explain it in simpler terms, a human hair is about 70 to 100 microns wide. So, most viruses and bacteria can’t get through them.

  • N95 masks are used by doctors and health-care workers who deal with infected patients. These masks provide a 95 percent protection against airborne microbial organisms. 

  • Construction workers who are exposed to various airborne particles need N95 respirators. Also, fire workers and members of the emergency response team use N95 respirators to protect themselves.

  • They are made with polyester and many layers of tangled fibers to act as a filter. That many layers make it almost impossible for any particle to pass through. 

  • A lot of N95 respirators have an exhalation valve on the front. These valves make it easier for the wearer to breathe. 

However, these special masks should only be worn by construction workers. An exhalation valve lets you breathe out the air, so you should not wear it in a sterile room. 

What You Can’t Expect from It?

  • N95 respirators are one-time use only. You can’t expect to use the same mask over and over again. These masks have layers that are charged. So, when you reuse them, it becomes a lot less useful as the particles remain there.

  • These respirators can form a tight fit. So, when you wear them for a longer period of time it can become uncomfortable and stuffy.

  • The supply of N95 respirators can become limited in the time of a global pandemic like COVID-19. You may have to pay a lot more for an N95 respirator during the time of a crisis.

  • An N95 respirator won’t protect you against a fluid splash. These respirators are only good for blocking airborne particles.

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Type 3: Cloth Masks

Cloth masks are the most basic form of protection against microbial organisms. Wearing a cloth mask in public places where social distancing is hard can somewhat give you protection. 

A cloth can be a useful thing when there is a shortage of other masks and respirators. However, you need to follow some instructions when using these.

  • Always wear a cloth mask when you step out of the house. Especially in places where community-based transmission is possible such as grocery stores and pharmacies.

  • In the time of a crisis like COVID-19, use cloth masks instead of surgical masks or respirators. These critical supplies should be reserved for medical workers.

  • If you are a healthcare professional you need to be extremely careful when using a cloth mask to treat patients. Try using these with an additional face shield that covers the entire face.

  • Cloth masks are not children who are under the age of 2, people who have breathing trouble, unconscious people or people who can’t remove the mask on their own. 

Purposes It Serves

  • Cloth masks give you the minimum protection you need when you go outside.

  • You can make a cloth mask at home from common materials. So, supply is not an issue.

  • These masks lower the chance of transmission through sneezing, coughing or speaking.

  • Cloth masks are better than not using any masks. These will protect you in situations where social distancing is hard.

What You Can’t Expect from It?

  • Cloth masks may give you a false sense of security. While these masks offer some protection, they are nowhere near the protection N95 respirators or surgical masks provide. 

  • These masks are half as effective as surgical masks and 50 times less effective than N95 respirators.

  • Unlike surgical masks, masks made from clothes are not at all fluid-resistant. In fact, infected fluid can get soaked through cloth masks and cause more harm.

  • Cloth masks don’t eliminate the need for other protective measures. Proper hygiene and social distancing are more effective. 

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How to Wear a Mask or Respirator?

Wearing a surgical mask or a respirator may seem simple but there are a lot of factors in play. Surgical masks are loose-fitting masks so air can inside from the sides. On the other hand, respirators require a tight fit. 

Step 1: Wash Your Hands

Before touching your mask or respirator make sure to wash your hands for 20 seconds. Use soap and water to wash your hands. However, if you can’t find any soap and water near you can use alcohol-based hand sanitizers.

Step 2: Put the Mask or Respirator On

Put on the mask and make sure that it covers your mouth and nose. Gently stretch the mask over your chin. For a respirator, choose a fit-tested one and place it over your mouth area. Fit the nose piece to secure it.

Step 3: Fit The Mask or Respirator Properly

Gently press the metal wire on the upper edge of the mask against your nose. Don’t leave any huge gaps where air can get in.

Secure the respirator on your head with ties or elastic. Finally, perform a fit check to make sure there is no leakage.

Some Extra Tips

  1. If your mask somehow gets wet or you have trouble breathing, change it.

  2. Do not touch or remove your face mask if you sneeze or cough.

  3. Follow the guidelines on the packaging of the mask or respirator to wear it properly. Make sure to properly dispose of any mask or respirator.

  4. Practice how to remove the mask and respirator. Remember not to touch the surface of the mask, touch only the straps. And most importantly, never forget about hand-washing. You should always do it after removing a mask.

  5. Try not to talk much when you’re wearing a mask or respirator. Doing so will extend the effective lifetime of these. 

Mistakes To Avoid While Wearing a Mask

Unless you have experience in the medical field you don’t know much about wearing masks. But during the time of a pandemic, a mask can be a great helping hand for you. 

Wearing a mask is no rocket-science but there are a few mistakes that we tend to make. These little mistakes may seem like nothing, but for a virus or bacteria, it may be the only thing they need.

Cover Your Nose and Mouth

Face masks are only effective when you wear them properly. So, when wearing one make sure that it covers the most vulnerable parts of your face.

Your mask might lie a bit above or below the bridge of your nose. Whatever position it is, make sure that your entire mouth is covered. Although some masks can cover your chin it’s not necessary.

Instead of covering the chin focus on using the chin as a support for your mask.

Make Sure It Fits Snugly, But Comfortably

Wearing masks for a long time is something most of us aren’t used to. It’ll take some time to get used to it. Nonetheless, a mask should let you breathe easily.

Small gaps in a face mask are okay but make sure that there are no big gaps. A huge gap between your face and the mask won’t let air pass through the mask. When air goes around the mask it can contain harmful bacteria or viruses.

Wash Your Hands Before and After Wearing a Mask

A clean protective mask won’t do you any good if you touch it with dirty hands. So, make sure you wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water(alcohol-based hand sanitizers work too) before a mask.

The next thing to keep in mind is cross-contamination. Cross-contamination happens when someone touches a door handle or a shelf and then touches their mask. 

When outside never allow yourself to touch your mask. If you absolutely need to adjust your mask make sure to disinfect your hands properly. 

Sanitize your hands before you attempt to remove your mask. When removing the mask try to avoid touching the outer part of it. You can store your mask in a paper bag.

Finally, after removing your mask don’t forget to wash your hands again. 

Wash Your Cloth Mask Regularly

Disposable masks and N95 respirators are hard to find during a pandemic like Coronavirus. So, you should continue using your cloth mask. Cloth masks can and should be cleaned regularly. 

The good news is, a washing machine with a hot water setting and some detergent is more than enough to clean your cloth mask. Once clean, dry them in a dryer or on a cloth line.

Finally, you should store your mask in a paper bag. And once again, remember to wash your hands after handling your mask.  

What Extra Benefits Can A Mask Provide You? 

Apart from giving you protection against microbial organisms, masks work great as a visual cue. They remind us to take precautions and keep the 6 feet social distance gap.

A mask should be seen as a badge of honor. If someone wears a mask in public it means they are concerned about the people around them. They want to do their part in limiting how they might impact you. 

It can give you a sense of security. People can acknowledge it as a warning. A mask can be a reminder of a crisis, an actual reinforcer. 

When To Use What Kind of Mask/Respirator?

A mask is a type of protective equipment, it is meant to be used sensibly. Surgical masks and N95 respirators are not for when you’re inside your house, lying around or doing something like cleaning your dog paws

Specialized masks have their own uses. And they shouldn’t be wasted for silly reasons. 

Situation 1: Going to The Supermarket

If you’re someone who is not a medical professional or health worker, you don’t need a surgical mask or an N95 respirator. Regular people should use cloth masks as they are not handling any infected patient. 

When you're going to the superstore or to the market, a cloth mask is more than enough. You should wear your masks in situations where maintaining social distance is hard. 

Closed, poorly ventilated places are perfect for infectious diseases. Virus or bacteria-containing droplets can spread easily in these situations. So, whenever you’re in this kind situation remember to wear your mask. 

Situation 2: Treating An Infected Patient

Medical professionals and healthcare workers who work in close proximity to infected patients should always wear N95 respirators. If they can’t manage an N95 respirator then a surgical mask will have to do the work.

However, during a time of crisis like Coronavirus N95 respirators and surgical masks become scarce. The general people should reserve these for healthcare workers who work in the front line. 

So, you should definitely use a surgical mask or an N95 respirator when treating an infected patient. 

However, if you have to use a surgical mask, make sure to take extra precautions. As explained earlier, surgical masks don’t give 100 percent protection against airborne particles as air can get inside from the sides.

How to Recognize and Avoid Fake Masks and Respirators

When purchasing masks, avoid any unknown websites or sellers, as they can’t provide any guarantee on the quality of these things. Note that fake N95 respirators and surgical masks will give you little to no protection.

So, when buying these here are a few things to keep in mind.

Surgical Masks

  1. Surgical masks usually have flat or pleated fabrics. A regular paper mask will have only one or two thin layers. Whereas, a surgical mask has three layers.

  2. Look for the manufacturer’s name on the packaging, most fake products won’t have it.

  3. Surgical masks offer 60 to 80 percent filtration against airborne particles.

  4. The package should carry an expiration date.

  5. Good and genuine surgical masks should provide a great fit. 

  6. The masks shouldn’t have any tears in them.

N95 Respirators

  1. N95 respirators should be labeled with an unexpired NIOSH certification number.

  2. They should have a 95 percent filtration efficiency against airborne particles. 

  3. While wearing the respirator spray liquid sugar in a room. If you can taste the sugar then it’s probably fake or doesn’t fit well.

  4. A genuine N95 respirator should fit perfectly. 

  5. The packaging should have instructions about the proper usage of the respirator.  

Are Masks and Respirators Reusable?

Surgical masks are disposable medical devices that you should use only one time. On the other hand, respirators are both disposable and reusable. If you want to reuse a respirator, you can replace the filter inside it. 

Manufacturers select the effective lifetime of masks and respirators. You can often find it on the packaging. The effective lifetime depends on a lot of factors such as air humidity, temperature, the volume of air breathed in, etc. 

However, most surgical masks have an effective lifetime of 3 to 8 hours after you’ve worn it. Again, this depends on the concentration of the contaminant and other external factors.

Although, a face shield over the face mask can help in increasing the lifetime. Moreover, a face shield will give extra protection.

4 Steps of DIY Face Mask At Home

Making a DIY face mask is quite easy. But when making a face mask you need to keep a few things in mind. 

A face mask should fit snugly but comfortably around your face, secured around the ears with ties. It should include multiple layers of fabric but make sure the mask is breathable and washable without damage. 

Step 1: Cut 2 Pieces of Fabric

Cut two 10-by-6-inch cotton fabric rectangles. Choose tightly woven cloth, such as cloth sheets or quilting fabric. Any kind of T-shirt fabric will work too. Stack the two rectangles; sew the mask as if it were just a single piece of cloth.

Step 2:  Pleat The Fabric

Pleat in 1⁄4 inch and hem over the long sides. Then pleat the fabric over a 1⁄2 inch double layer with the short sides and sew it.

Step 3: Make the Ear Loops

Attach a 6-inch length of 1/8-inch wide elastic along the wider hem on either end of the mask. These will be used as the ear loops. To thread it through, use a broad needle or a bobby pin. Make sure the ends are tight.

Don't worry if you don’t have any elastic. You can use elastic headbands or hair chains. If you want to tie it behind your head, attach a longer elastic. 

Step 4: Secure The Ear Loops 

Pull the elastic gently to make sure the knots are tucked in. Collect the mask sides on the elastic surface and adjust it to your face. Sew the elastic properly to keep it intact. 

What to Do with A Mask or Respirator After Using It?

Improperly discarded masks could become a potential health hazard if people come in contact with it. These also carry a small risk of passing a virus or bacteria through the air. 

Either way, no one should leave their used mask in an open place. Here’s how you should dispose of masks and respirators in 4 steps.

Step 1: Wash Hands

Before removing the mask or respirator, wash your hands for 20 seconds to make sure there are no contaminants. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if you don’t have access to soap and water. 

Step 2: Take Off The Mask or Respirator

Gently take off your mask or respirator using the straps on the sides. Remember not to touch the surface of the mask. 

Step 3: Fold It 3 times

Fold the mask in half so that the germs and droplets are contained inside. Then fold it 2 more times until it is like a roll. You can even wrap it with the ear loops.

Step 4: Wrap it With a Tissue Paper

Wrap the mask or respirator with a tissue before you throw it in the garbage. Wrapping it ensures that the germs will not be exposed to the air and infect others. 

How to Use a Mask If You Already Have a Viral Disease?

If you already have a viral disease, it’s best for you to stay home except to receive medical care. If you live with someone ill or have someone taking care of you, wear a surgical mask if possible.

Wearing a mask when you’re ill is no different than when you’re healthy. Whenever you wear a mask ensure that you’re following the proper steps. You should do your best to not infect other people. 

Using Surgical Masks and Respirators During a Pandemic

In the time of a pandemic like COVID-19, surgical masks and respirators should be reserved for healthcare workers and doctors. They are always in close proximity to infected patients. 

However, here are a few recommendations you should follow during a pandemic.

  1. Wear a surgical mask if you're ill with a viral disease or you’re taking care of someone who’s ill.

  2. Surgical masks shouldn’t be reused. Make sure to properly dispose of them.

  3. Change your surgical mask regularly. Do not use a surgical mask if it becomes damp or damaged.

  4. Remember to discard your masks in a closed garbage bin after removing it. 

  5. Clean your hands before and after you wear a mask. In addition, clean your hands if you somehow touch the surface of your mask. 

What Other Safety Precautions Are Needed(Apart from Masks)?

Masks and respirators are not solutions to any viral disease. Prevention is always the key. Wearing a mask can certainly protect you but you should follow other safety precautions that are much more helpful.

  1. Clean Your Hands More Often 

Wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water especially after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing. Use a hand sanitizer with a minimum of 60 percent alcohol if there is no water and soap.

  1. Avoid Close Contact

Don’t go near people who are sick. If you’re sick, put a distance of 2 meters between yourself and other people. Maintaining social distance is important for people who are at higher risk of getting infected. 

  1. Cover Your Coughs

If you’re in a public place and you don’t have a face mask on you, make sure to cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue. Remember to throw the tissue in a garbage bin and wash your hands afterward. 

  1. Clean and Disinfect 

Try to clean and disinfect all the regularly touched surfaces. Additionally, disinfect your groceries to stay safe. You don’t have to use any detergent or disinfectant to clean the groceries. 

However, you need these to clean surfaces such as door handles, phones, keyboards, light switches, etc.

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In Case You Want to Donate Masks to Health Care People

There can be a dire shortage of masks and PPE in the time of a global pandemic. So, if you want to give a donation and help the frontline workers, there are a lot of options for you.

  • WeNeedMasks.org has options for most of the states and Puerto if you want to produce and donate cloth masks. 

  • You can donate surgical masks, N95 respirators, and PPE to #GetUsPPE. Although, keep in mind that a lot of places will only take unopened packages.

  • The N95 project is connecting suppliers and manufacturers to hospitals and clinics that need them. If you’re a supplier or manufacturer try contacting them.


Question: How often do I need to wash my cloth mask?

Answer: You have to wash your cloth mask after every use. Try keeping a spare one in case you need it.

Question: Can a scarf work as a mask?

Answer: A scarf is loosely knit so it won’t be effective in blocking any droplets.

Question: Can a mask offer protection if someone sneezes on me?

Answer: Yes. But only If you properly wear the mask and don’t touch its surface. 

Parting Words

So, this was all we had to say about masks and respirators. You should always remember surgical masks and respirators are not something regular people should waste. Medical professionals, people with viral diseases and people taking care of them always need them. 

Masks may be a tool for protecting you but these things can never replace good hygiene and social distancing measures.

Richard Allen