What’s the Difference Between a Face Mask and a Respirator?

Get to know your airborne particulate filters.


If you’ve dared to venture out of quarantine long enough to go to the supermarket or — eek! — made your way through a half-empty airport in these dark and trying times, no doubt you’ve seen someone wearing a mask. No, not those types of masksprotective masks.

What’s confusing, though, is why those people all seem to be wearing multiple types of face masks. For example, some look like what a doctor might wear to perform surgery, and lie flat across the nose and mouth; others look like what an HVAC repairman might wear to fix your central heating, and form a sort of rigid bulb.

So what’s the difference between the two styles, anyway?

A doctor’s mask, or surgical mask, is, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), intended to protect the wearer from droplets and sprays of dangerous bodily fluids. That means that surgical masks are water resistant. That said, surgical masks are loose-fitting, and are not designed to block airborne particulate matter. This means that, while they’re good at protecting your nose and mouth in case someone sneezes on you, they’re bad at filtering out any microorganisms that happen to be floating around in the air.

This is where that other type of mask, i.e., the respirator, comes in. These bulbous, rigid masks differ from surgical masks in a few ways: For one, they’re designed to form a tight seal around your nose and mouth, unlike a doctor’s mask. For another, they’re not waterproof, and in case they do get wet, they should be thrown out immediately, lest they become ineffective.

But the most important difference is that respirators are designed as filters for fine particulate matter, unlike surgical masks, which again, are really just good for blocking bodily fluid transfer. The reason you likely associate them with home repairmen or factory workers is because these types of tradespeople often work in environments where dust and hazardous gases are prevalent. But according to the CDC, they’ve also been proven to protect humans from biohazards like bacteria and airborne viruses. 

Now you know what the differences are in all the masks you’re seeing, but it’s worth pointing out that there are variations in the two different styles, with varying levels of effectiveness, so keep that in mind if you’re shopping online, or worse, on the black market. And most importantly, if you happen to get your hands on a mask, that’s not carte blanche to venture out into the hot zone — social distancing is everything right now, so do everything you can to stay home and not infect each other.