What Type of Face Mask Gives You The Best Protection

Updated on June 29, 2020

Which type of mask offers the best protection against viruses? This is a question you may be pondering about, especially with the ongoing global pandemic caused by a new strain of coronavirus called Sars-Cov-2. According to health experts, wearing a good quality face mask, social distancing, and observing good hygiene can greatly minimize your exposure to the latest coronavirus. 

A mask can be a disposable medical device such as a surgical mask or personal protective equipment (PPE) such as a respirator. Because of the current pandemic masks aren’t reserved for medical workers and contagious patients but should also be worn by the general public. Depending on the type of mask, they protect against the transmission of airborne infectious agents such as contaminated droplets and particles. Guided by its standard and protection class, a mask can prevent transmission of viruses such as coronavirus, SARS, and H1N1.

How Do Face Masks Work?

There is a wide variety of face masks and face coverings, and currently, they range from sterile medical-grade masks to cloth face masks and coverings. 

Medical-grade masks include N95 respirators and surgical face masks. The N95 respirator is the face mask designed to filter out airborne viruses, small particles, droplets, and smoke. Surgical face masks block respiratory droplets and other large particles from entering or exiting your mouth and nose.

Non-medical face coverings such as homemade masks, scarves, and bandanas protect you against large particles and droplets. Though they may not be as effective as medical-grade masks, they offer substantial protection against transmitting or contracting coronavirus.

What Types of Masks Are Available?

Face protection options vary from hospital-grade respirators and surgical masks to homemade masks and makeshift coverings such as scarves and bandanas.

N95 respirators and surgical masks are regulated by the FDA. They are tested before being released to the market for filtration efficiency, fluid resistance, biocompatibility, and flammability. 


A respirator is a personal protective device that covers your nose and mouth. It reduces your risk of inhaling hazardous airborne particles and infectious agents such as bacteria and viruses. Particulate or air-purifying respirators like the N95 are designed to filter out airborne particles as you breathe.

Respirators that filter out at least 95% of airborne particles receive a 95 rating. Those that filter out at least 99% and 100% of airborne particles get a 99 and 100 rating, respectively.

The CDC recommends that health care workers protect themselves from airborne transmission of coronavirus by wearing respirators. The public is advised to reserve this protective gear for use by medical professionals to prevent shortages. 

Some respirators are fitted with an exhalation valve to reduce excessive moisture and dampness from exhaled breath. The valve releases to expel exhaled breath and shuts during inhalation so that inhaled air gets in through the filter.

Respirator Use Guidelines

· Examine the respirator to ensure it doesn’t have defects, such as holes or loose straps.

· Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for donning and removing.

· Ensure proper fit by making sure that your nose and mouth are properly covered. A respirator should form a complete seal after donning it.

· Mold the respirator around the bridge of your nose to ensure a good fit. 

· Remove and discard your respirator by touching the straps only and perform hand hygiene before and after.

It’s important to note that a respirator makes it more difficult for the wearer to breath, hence if you suffer from respiratory, cardiac, or similar medical conditions, you should consult your healthcare provider before using one. Respirators are also not designed for people with facial hair and may not provide them with adequate protection.

Surgical Masks

A surgical mask is a loose-fitting medical face-covering designed to cover your nose and mouth. It creates a barrier between the wearer and infectious agents in the immediate environment. These masks should never be shared and can be labeled as medical procedure, surgical, isolation or dental masks. Some come with a face shield and are regulated under 21 CFR 878.4040. 

These masks are made from different materials and are available in different thicknesses and with a varying ability to protect you from contaminated droplets and large particles. These individual properties also affect how easily you breathe through the mask and how effective it is in protecting you.

If worn properly, a surgical mask will adequately block out droplets, splatter, or splashes that may contain harmful viruses and bacteria. They also reduce exposure of your saliva and other respiratory secretions to others. 

While a face mask is effective in blocking out large droplets and splashes, by design, it doesn’t block or filter out very small airborne particles. They may also not provide complete protection from harmful contaminants because of their loose fit.

Surgical masks are not designed to be used more than once. If your mask is soiled, damaged, or if you can’t breathe properly through it, then you should discard it safely and get a new one. Remember to wash your hands after handling a used mask.

What Are The Differences Between Face Masks and Respirators?

Surgical masks are loose-fitting disposable devices, which means they aren’t designed to create a seal around your nose and mouth. It’s important to note that not all medical masks are regulated as surgical masks. These masks only protect you from large droplets, splashes, and splatters.

Respirators, on the other hand, are categorized as personal protective equipment (PPE) and are designed for a very close fit and efficient filtration of airborne particles. Their edges create a good seal around your nose and mouth. Medical N95 respirators are reserved for use by medical professionals in healthcare settings.

However, it’s also important to note that there are similarities between surgical masks and respirators like the N95. All FDA approved devices are tested fluid resistance, particulate and bacterial filtration efficiency, biocompatibility, and flammability. They should also not be shared and are to be disposed of safely. 

How To Choose a Surgical Mask or Respirator

There are several criteria that you can use when choosing a respirator or mask. 

  • Application: Depending on your profession, application, and the presence or absence of infectious and contagious pathogens, caregivers, patients, and the general public can determine what kind of mask can provide them with adequate protection.
  • Type of mask: The two main types of medical-grade masks are respirators and surgical masks. They have different standards and functions. It’s important to note that surgical masks will only protect you against infectious agents transmitted through droplets. While respirators not only protect you from infectious droplets but also from the inhalation of infectious agents that are transmitted through the air. 
  • Level of Protection: Both surgical masks are respirators and are subject to different standards and regulations depending on your country. Within these standards, there are various classes that determine the degree of protection. 
  • Disposable or Reusable: Surgical masks are intended to be used once and disposed of. Respirators, on the other hand, can be reusable. It is also possible to replace a respirator filter after a stipulated duration. 
  • Effective Life: The duration of a mask’s effectiveness varies with quality and use. This can vary from three to eight hours and is also indicated by the manufacturer. 
  • Comfort: Masks come in different sizes and are designed to the morphology of the wearer. Some respirators are also fitted with an exhalation valve to improve user comfort. There are also full-face respirators and masks that cover your eyes if eye protection is required. 

Are Homemade Masks Effective?

A homemade cloth mask relatively protects you and others from the large particles and respiratory droplets. While it may effectively block out large droplets, splatters, and splashes, smaller airborne particles can penetrate the mask and get inhaled. Unlike medical masks, there is no set of standards that guides the production of homemade masks.

Thread count, diameter, and permeability determine the effectiveness of a homemade mask. Ideally, fabrics that have a higher thread count, such as cotton, are more suitable. Homemade face masks and other coverings should be washed in hot water and dried in high heat to kill any bacteria and viruses. 

Tips to Consider When Assessing The Quality of Material For a Face Mask

  • Choose woven fabrics. The higher the thread count or tighter the weave, the better the protection, as long as you can breathe comfortably.
  • Use multiple layers of fabrics as long as you can breathe comfortably.
  • Avoid bleached fabrics and those treated with harsh chemicals.
  • You can add a HEPA filter to boost your mask’s filtration effectiveness. 
  • Avoid porous materials

The respirator is the most effective protective device to wear on your face if you want to protect yourself from infectious agents and droplets. However, they are reserved for medical professionals since they are at a higher risk of infection. 

You are required to wear a mask whenever you are in public. Though not as effective as respirators, surgical, and homemade masks are considered adequate. It is important that you learn how to wear your mask correctly, not only to protect yourself but also other people in your immediate environment.

+ posts

Throughout the year, our writers feature fresh, in-depth, and relevant information for our audience of 40,000+ healthcare leaders and professionals. As a healthcare business publication, we cover and cherish our relationship with the entire health care industry including administrators, nurses, physicians, physical therapists, pharmacists, and more. We cover a broad spectrum from hospitals to medical offices to outpatient services to eye surgery centers to university settings. We focus on rehabilitation, nursing homes, home care, hospice as well as men’s health, women’s heath, and pediatrics.