Face Coverings 101: Differences Between Masks and N95 Respirators

In times like these, it’s important to understand that not all face coverings are the same.

Closer look as Face masks and respirators
  • Before the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak in the United States, you probably never thought you would have to understand the differences between a non-medical cloth face mask, a medical face mask and a N95 respirator. COVID-19 has created a new reality where face coverings are now a part of our everyday life. Read on to learn more about different types of masks and respirators and what to consider when deciding what you want to use to help protect yourself and others.

Does a face mask provide the same type of protection as a N95 respirator?

  • No. A simple way to think about it: respirators can help protect you while you breathe in; cloth or single use face masks are more about helping protect those around you as you talk, cough or sneeze.

    Disposable N95 respirators can help reduce your exposure to breathing in particulates, even very small particles floating in the air. Face masks do not provide this type of protection.

    For a product to meet government requirements for certified respiratory protection, it must be able to capture and filter particles of varying sizes — including those so small you can’t see them. And N95 respirators also need to form a tight seal around your face.

    Because of these protective capabilities, N95 respirators play a crucial role for healthcare workers and first responders on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Below are some key differences between face coverings, medical masks and N95 respirators:

  • Non-medical reusable cloth face masks

    Non-medical reusable cloth face masks

    Although they do not create a tight seal around the face like an N95 respirator, non-medical face masks are currently recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (U.S. CDC) for the general public during everyday use. These masks are convenient for wearing in everyday situations like grocery shopping, taking a socially distanced walk with your friends or talking to your neighbors. Cloth face masks may help block large particle droplets expelled by you from reaching others when you speak, cough or sneeze. Generally constructed of multiple layers, these masks are washable and can be found at many retailers.

  • Non-medical disposable face masks

    Non-medical disposable face masks

    Like cloth face masks, single-use disposable face masks adhere to U.S. CDC guidelines for use during day-to-day errands and interactions with people outside your household. They may also assist in helping protect others from germs you might spread to them and are available at many retail stores. They do not create a seal around the face. Unlike reusable cloth masks, single use masks should be thrown away after one use.

  • Medical masks

    Medical masks

    • Medical masks comply with recognized performance standards and are used by healthcare workers as a barrier to help protect them from high velocity streams of liquids, such as blood, that they may be exposed to during certain medical procedures. Medical masks can also help capture some particles and droplets expelled by the wearer, such as those that may contain viruses and bacteria.
    • Because medical masks fit loosely on the face, they do not provide respiratory protection to the wearer from germs or contaminants transmitted by coughs, sneezes or certain medical procedures since those fine particles in the air can leak in around the edges. This is one of the key reasons why they’re not used to help protect the wearer from breathing in particles. This is where an N95 respirator comes into play.
  • N95 standard disposable respirators

    N95 standard disposable respirators

    • An N95 respirator or similar respirator is intended to seal tightly to the face, covering the mouth and nose, and can filter at least 95% of airborne particles, including those that may contain viruses and bacteria. The entire surface of the respirator is a filter, which makes it very efficient at capturing airborne particles.

    • To get a NIOSH approved “N95” designation, a respirator must filter at least 95% of non-oily particles, including very small particles that can’t be seen (such as viruses) using standardized test methods. It’s important to remember that a properly fitted respirator is intended to reduce your exposure but not eliminate itcompletely.

    • N95 respirators play a crucial role for healthcare workers, first responders and other essential workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • N95 surgical disposable respirators

    N95 surgical disposable respirators

    An N95 surgical disposable respirator is like a standard N95, but also meets other specific standards, such as fluid resistance, and is FDA-cleared to be used in surgery. They are specifically for healthcare workers conducting certain tasks.

Face Masks and Respirators FULL Comparison chart
  • For information on COVID-19 and recommended products, please consult applicable health authorities, such as the U.S. CDC or Health Canada.

If cloth or single-use disposable face masks aren’t proven to protect me from breathing in germs, why should I wear one?

  • When wearing a mask, you play a role in helping protect others in your community by reducing the likelihood of you spreading germs.

    Even though they don’t offer respiratory protection, reusable and disposable face masks can help slow the spread of airborne viruses, according to the U.S. CDC. They offer a barrier to help keep germs from coughing and sneezing — and even talking — from reaching other people, which is especially important for asymptomatic carriers who don’t know they are infected. Additionally, they can also be a physical reminder to not touch your nose and mouth.

Who should wear a mask/face covering? Who should not wear a mask/face covering?

  • The U.S. CDC recommends “that people wear masks in public settings and when around people who don’t live in your household, especially when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.” This is one component of the broader U.S. CDC guidance that includes physical distancing, hand washing and wearing face coverings. These face coverings are not the same as a medical mask or a respirator. According to the U.S. CDC, people who should not wear a face covering/mask include children under the age of 2, anyone who has trouble breathing or has a related health condition, and anyone who can’t remove a face covering/mask without help.

    If you are sick with COVID-19 or think you might have COVID-19, wearing a mask does not make it safe or acceptable to visit public areas or be close to other people. Isolate yourself, whether or not you have symptoms. Stay home except when directed by your medical provider to get medical care.

    Face coverings/masks are NOT a substitute for a government approved respirator and should not be relied upon for respiratory protection (wearer exposure reduction).

What should I look for in a non-medical reusable face covering or mask?

  • According to the U.S. CDC, here are some important things to look for in a non-medical reusable cloth face covering or mask:

    • It should have two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric
    • It should completely cover both the nose and mouth
    • It should fit snugly against the side of your face and not have gaps
    • It should not have exhalation valves or vents, which may allow virus particles to exit

What else should I know about wearing face masks in public?

  • Wearing a face mask does not reduce the need to maintain 6-feet social distancing. Additionally, the U.S. CDC recommends the following to help protect yourself and others:

    • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are unavailable
    • Avoid close contact with people who are sick
    • Cover coughs and sneezes
    • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces
    • Monitor your health and stay home if you are sick

Can N95 respirators be reused?

  • For normal use with non-harmful dust and debris, disposable respirators can, in fact, be used until they are dirty, damaged or difficult to breathe through. However, if you have used a respirator in public to help protect yourself from airborne particles, such as liquid droplets that may contain germs and viruses, care should be taken when handling the respirator, as those particles may be captured on the filter fibers and remain on those fibers. The respirator should be removed with care so as to not touch the outside surface that may be contaminated and then appropriately handled after use. If you have questions, call the 3M technical service line. In the U.S. call 1-800-423-4630 and in Canada call 1-800-267-4414.

    For normal use with non-harmful dust and debris, disposable respirators can, in fact, be used until they are dirty, damaged or difficult to breathe through. However, if you have used a respirator in public to help protect yourself from airborne particles, such as liquid droplets that may contain germs and viruses, care should be taken when handling the respirator, as those particles may be captured on the filter fibers and remain on those fibers. The respirator should be removed with care so as to not touch the outside surface that may be contaminated and then appropriately handled after use. If you have questions, call the 3M technical service line. In the U.S. call 1-800-423-4630 and in Canada call 1-800-267-4414.

Is a KN95 respirator the same as an N95 respirator?

  • KN95s are disposable respirators that are tested and certified to a China government standard (GB2626). The required filtration efficiency is very similar to that required for U.S. N95 disposable respirators; however, they are not approved by the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). There are some respirators that have both the NIOSH N95 and the China KN95 approval on the same model.

    Many KN95 respirators have a construction called “vertical flatfold,” which is not as commonly seen in the U.S. These respirators are packaged flat, with a vertical fold down the middle, but open up into a cup shape.

    While N95 respirators typically feature two headbands, KN95 respirators may feature either headbands or ear loops.

    KN95 respirators are typically designed to fit people with facial features common in China. As a result, some individuals with different facial features may not be able to achieve a satisfactory fit. U.S. workers may experience fit test pass rates that are lower than they are accustomed to. If a fit test cannot be conducted — or the worker cannot pass a fit test — then these products should be used as a face covering/mask, not a respirator. If appropriate fit can be attained, KN95s can help reduce exposures to airborne particles that is very similar to that of N95 respirators. You can learn more about KN95 respirators here.

Why are N95 respirators so critical for healthcare workers?

  • As healthcare workers and first responders fight the spread of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, they may be exposed to airborne germs in much higher concentrations than the general public. This is why N95 disposable respirators are so important on the job.

    The current U.S. CDC guidance to wear face coverings doesn’t refer to N95 respirators or medical masks, which should continue to be reserved for healthcare workers, first responders and essential workers. To learn more about 3M’s response, visit our COVID-19 response site.

    Published: October 2020