May 13, 2020

Surgical Masks vs Respirators – What You Need to Know

As we continue to shift and adapt to the new normal, it’s common to see people wearing masks in public, when driving and while working. In light of COVID-19, we have been receiving questions about the many different mask styles people are seeing. Many wonder about which ones specifically offer respiratory protection and people often don’t know the difference between surgical masks and respirators.

Surgical and surgical style (facial covering) masks

Out of the gate we must understand that surgical masks are not respirators. These masks will not provide the wearer with a reliable level of protection from inhaling smaller airborne particles/viruses and is not considered respiratory protection.

The main difference between a surgical (style) mask and a respirator is that one is designed to protect you, whereas the other is designed to protect others around you. However surgical masks may be worn by people who are ill as a physical barrier to help limit the spread droplets that could contain viruses. Surgical masks are often loose-fitting and do not have a sealed barrier to protect from any airborne particulate matter and are designed to capture droplets spreading from the wearer into the environment around them.

Surgical masks are named for their purpose. They are primarily designed for health care workers who are working in sterile environments, such as operating rooms where they serve two purposes:

  • To protect the patient from infection by the medical staff potentially spreading droplets from their mouths (our mouths are full of bacteria that could be harmful to patients). Our skin provides an excellent barrier of protection from bacteria and viruses entering our bodies. An example that helps to illustrate this further is our interaction with a family dog. Many of us allow dogs to lick our hands or faces without any issues. Yet if that same dog were to bite you, there is a good chance you could develop an infection. The same principle applies to surgical masks.
  • To protect the nose and mouth of medical staff against splashes and sprays of blood and other bodily fluids, as well as bacteria and particulate matter (depending on the ASTM level of the mask).


Respirators come in many shapes, sizes and serve many different purposes. Respirators are always tight-fitting around your face as to prevent any particulates from entering your mask. This face covering must be properly fit tested to the wearer and must be used in combination of a respiratory protection program.

The most common respirators are N95 disposable respirators or “dust masks”. They are single-use, most commonly have valves and are designed for moderate to heavy respiration from the wearer (i.e. working and breathing hard). The valve helps keep the face cool and lets moisture out. Because of this valve, these masks do not offer protection to others who are unprotected around the wearer. The non-valved N95 respirator mask are designed for lighter work tasks where respiration is low. This style of mask offers dual protection to the wearer and those around them. Medical N95 disposable respirators are similar as they have no valve; the only difference is that they are rated to protect the wearer from splashes of blood and other bodly fluid.

Many of us have seen suppliers starting to sell KN95 disposable masks. These are the Chinese equivalency to the NIOSH N95 Respirators and some provinces have made amendments to their guidelines to allow workers to use these masks. Note, however, that there’s some controversy surrounding these these masks as some may be faulty and possibly not meet their specifications. It is important that these masks be certified and have documentation prove this. These masks are a great option if non-valved N95 disposable respirators are not available.

We also have the option to wear reusable respirators. They offer a higher level of protection than that of an N95 mask when equipped with a 100 series filter (most commonly referred to as a P100 filter, or can be N, R, or P rated and equipped with an organic vapour cardridge). These masks are more comfortable and can be decontaminated and reused. It is important to understand though that this mask style does not offer protection to those around the wearer ad they have an exhaust valve. Although the exhaust valves are pointed downward, allowing particulate and droplets to be forced toward the floor and out of the breathing zone of others, this does not guarantee protection to others. It may however help prevent aerosolization of droplets.

In summary, we see many people in public wearing surgical style masks or cloth face coverings. The US CDC is recommending that everyone wear facial coverings, whereas provincial health authorities and the government of Canada are not recommending or condoning the use of masks. This is a controversial subject as wearing a mask can cause the wearer to have more hand to face contact due to masks being uncomfortable or needing readjusting. Cloth masks will also lose effectiveness as they become wet from breathing. If you do decide to purchase a cloth face mask, ensure you find one that seals tight against your face and do not purchase one that comes with an exhalation valve. Although this feature will make it easier for you to breath out, they defeat the purpose of you wearing the mask.

In the end, wearing a facial covering (non-respirator style) in combination or proper hand hygiene (washing hands) will prevent you from spreading droplets into the air and surfaces and this has been proven in many studies to help the spread of illnesses and diseases.

About the Author

Justin McConville, CRSP, Leader, Health, Safety & Environmental, On Side Restoration Services. Justin holds professional certifications as a Canadian Registered Safety Professional (CRSP). He has worked for On Side Restoration for the past 16 years, where he is responsible for the health and safety of over 1,300 On Side employees across Canada as well as the company’s hazardous materials divisions. Justin has been instrumental in the development of various policies and procedures to ensure continued compliance with multi-provincial regulatory requirements. Justin is an active member on the BCCSA Technical Advisory Committee which is focused on the development of industry safety standards and training. He is also a contributing member and subject matter expert on various committees including the WorkSafeBC/BCCSA: Prime contractor Committee, Asbestos Task Force Committee and Hazardous Materials Exposure Control Plan Committee. He was awarded the 2018 Safety & Health Week Champion Award by the BC Construction Safety Alliance for his dedication to and contribution in the development of industry safety resources.