Types of Masks

There are three main types of PPE masks available to healthcare workers. These are categorized as either masks, respirators or filtering face pieces (FFPs)

A surgical mask is a three-layered (3-ply) design. They comprise a melt-brown layer in between two sheets of non-woven fabric. This same melt-blown material is used in respirators, although some materials have higher filtering functionality than others. 

The most common type of respirator is the N95. It meets a standard managed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) – a branch of the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

An FFP mask is certified to European Union standards and protects against particles. The EN 149 standard defines three classes of filtration: FFP1, FFP2 and FFP3. The FFP2 mask is the most similar to the N95 mask and is used in the fight against COVID-19 and similar viruses. 

Both N95 and face filtering pieces are types of respirators. These are devices that are designed to provide a snug facial fit and efficiently filter airborne particles. Due to the higher specification, officials including the CDC have recommended that respirators are used only by healthcare workers.

Summaries of the types of PPE masks

Surgical masks in summary:

  • Surgical masks are loose-fitting devices that cover the wearer’s nose and mouth
  • Masks are designed to capture the respiratory droplets of the wearer and offer one-way protection. They are not created to protect the wearer but rather the patient of the wearer
  • Masks may be worn during surgery to prevent germs from reaching the patient
  • Unlike respirators, most masks do not have a safety rating assigned to them (e.g. NIOSH or EN)


Respirator masks (N95 and FFP2) in summary:

  • Respirators are tight-fitting and create a seal once applied 
  • Non-valved respirators filter the inflow and outflow of air. This means that they provide protection to the wearer and those around them
  • They will protect the wearer as directed in the safety rating of the mask. The N95 filters at least 95% of particles that are 0.3 microns in diameter or larger. By comparison, the FFP2 filters at least 94%

Which types of mask protect us against COVID-19?

The size of coronavirus particles is around 0.1 microns. That means that highly efficient respirators such as the N95 and FFP2 can help filter the particles of the virus. Future studies will confirm exactly how much protection they can provide against COVID-19.

There isn’t yet a concurrent agreement on the effectiveness of surgical masks, respirators and face filtering pieces against the virus that causes COVID-19. Previous studies have tested the transmission rates of influenza between subjects wearing surgical masks, respirators and nothing, both in hospital and domestic settings. In fact, the results between both were similar.

An Australian study surveyed parents who were taking care of sick children. 16% of the parents who did not wear a mask contracted the illness. Meanwhile, only 8% of parents got sick when they wore either a surgical mask or a respirator. Similar studies in healthcare establishments have yielded similar results. 

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