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Face Masks vs. Respirators – What’s the Difference?

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Luis Monzon
Luis Monzon
Journalist. Reach me at

South Africa’s health minister has advocated the widespread use of masks for all citizens and now just about everything from cloth masks to regulation N95 masks are in limited supply. Now more than ever should South Africans understand the capabilities of the masks they wear, the difference between them and how they can effectively stop the spread of the coronavirus.

As the country’s lockdown is extended for another two weeks, South Africans have the responsibility to protect themselves and each other.

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Fast Life Hacks has compiled a host of important information about masks, respirators and everything in-between in the fight against COVID-19. They also clarify the differences between face masks and respirators thusly:

Face Masks:

  • Masks are loose-fitting, covering the nose and mouth
  • Designed for one-way protection, to capture bodily fluid leaving the wearer
  • Example – worn during surgery to prevent coughing, sneezing, etc on the vulnerable patient
  • Contrary to belief, masks are NOT designed to protect the wearer
  • The vast majority of masks do not have a safety rating assigned to them (e.g. NIOSH or EN)


  • Respirators are tight-fitting masks, designed to create a facial seal
  • Non-valved respirators provide good two-way protection, by filtering both inflow and outflow of air
  • These are designed to protect the wearer (when worn properly), up to the safety rating of the mask
  • Available as disposable, half face or full face

Respirators – N95 vs FFP3 & FFP2

The N95 and FFP2 respirators, respectively. Note the FFP2 comes with a valve. Sourced from Fast Life Hacks.

The most commonly discussed respirator type is the ever-limited N95. This is an American standard managed by NIOSH – part of the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

Europe uses two different standards. The “filtering facepiece” score (FFP) which includes EN 143 standard covers of P1/P2/P3 ratings. These standards are maintained by CEN (European Committee for Standardization).

Let’s see how all the different standards compare:

Sourced from Fast Life Hacks

The N100 respirator is the most effective at filtering with a capacity of 99.97%, while the N95 can filter about 95% of all incoming particles. The least effective respirators are the FFP1 and P1

Occasionally some respirators come with valves, which make it easier to exhale air. This makes them more comfortable to wear and leads to less moisture build-up inside the respirator. Ideal for things like DIY/construction work.

Respirators with high efficiency at 0.3-micron particle size (N95/FFP2 or better) can in theory filter particles down to the size of the coronavirus (which is around 0.1 microns).

What that doesn’t tell us is how much protection respirators will provide against coronavirus when in use – as of yet, studies conducted on the exact protection respirators provide against the coronavirus are yet to be published.

Surgical Face Masks

A standard surgical face mask.

The very common surgical face mask is usually what South Africans see the most as they embark on essential trips during the lockdown. They are a 3-layer design, with 2 sheets of “non-woven” fabric sandwiching a “melt-blown” layer in the middle.

It’s the melt-blown layer that provides the filtering capability. A melt-blown material is also used in respirators, and thus you can imagine it’s more expensive and hard to come by recently, due to demand.

The melt-blown fabric is made by melting a plastic, then blowing it from either side at high velocity onto a rotating barrel. Done right, this results in a fabric composed of tiny filaments.

Not all melt-blown fabric has the same filtering capability, some are better than others. Unfortunately, we can’t test the filtering capability of the melt-blown layer without specialized knowledge and equipment. What we can do, however, is at least check that the melt-blown layer is present.

Choosing surgical masks that have been tested according to a set of standardized test methods (ASTM F2100, EN 14683, or equivalent) will help avoid low-quality products. The ASTM standard for surgical masks (particularly levels 2 & 3) are primarily focused around fluid resistance during surgery. These higher levels don’t offer much extra in the way of protection from COVID-19 under non-surgical conditions.

What’s Better?

Whilst FFP2/FFP3 or N95/N100 are the gold standard as far as face protection goes, can the same be said for surgical masks?

Fast Life Hacks state that, strictly speaking, surgical masks are primarily designed to protect vulnerable patients from medical professionals. Stopping the wearer (e.g. surgeon) from spreading their germs when coughing/sneezing/speaking. So they’re designed to protect patients, not to protect the wearer.

An obvious flaw with surgical masks compared to respirators is their lack of a tight face fit, which leaves gaps around the edges.

There isn’t currently research available on the efficacy of surgical masks (or even respirators), for protecting wearers against the coronavirus. Although this isn’t totally surprising given how new the virus is.

However, it is important to note that any protection is better than absolutely no protection. With the minister himself informing South Africans that even cloth masks provide effective protection against infection, especially if social distancing is adhered to.

Any mask is better than no mask, just remember to use hand sanitizer as well.

Edited by Luis Monzon

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