Common Questions About Respirators vs Surgical Face Masks

Are you wondering about the difference between respirators and surgical masks? In this article, we are going to answer the common questions about the differences including the proper usage of these two.

Health care personnel often use surgical face masks as personal protective equipment (PPE).

But, surgical face masks are not considered respirators.

We recommend that you read about the usage of respirators in health care applications for more information.

Now, let's get started with our discussion for today.

#1 When should you wear a surgical face mask or a respirator?

The decision of a worker wearing a surgical face mask or a respirator will depend on:

  • How hazardous the worker’s work environment is
  • The protective capacities of the PPE


Respirators help in reducing the respiratory exposure of the wearer to airborne particles, vapors, and gases.

Filters and respirators must be chosen depending on how hazardous the working environment is.

These come in different styles and sizes.

Plus, they should be carefully selected to create a tight seal on the face of the wearer.

A good seal forces the air you inhale to enter on your respirator’s filter to provide maximum protection.

Surgical Face Masks

These masks are also known as medical or procedural face masks.

They help in preventing the contamination of your work environment as well as sterile fields from large-particle droplets you produce.

For instance, surgical face masks can prevent the wearer’s mucus or spit from spreading in the workplace.

Surgical face masks also help in reducing the possibility of sprays or splashes of blood, excretions, secretions, and body fluids from reaching your nose or mouth.

Infected patients can also wear surgical masks to prevent infections from spreading.

You can rely on SoMedical if you are looking for a reliable face mask supplier.

#2 Can you differentiate between a surgical face mask and a respirator just by their physical appearance?

You cannot easily tell the difference between a surgical mask and a respirator because it is not always apparent.

Respirators will have marks indicating their approval ratings such as N95, N100, and others.

Surgical masks, on the other hand, don’t have these ratings.

Make sure that that you always wear the right mask or respirator based on your task and the hazards present in your workplace.

#3 What are the differences between surgical face masks and respirators?

Here, we outline the major differences between surgical masks and respirators.

Evaluation, Testing & Certification


In the U.S, respirators are tested, evaluated, and certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

This ensures that the respirators meet the minimum requirements which include breathing resistance and filter efficiency.

If a respirator is approved by NIOSH, it will have these labels:

  • The name of the manufacturer
  • The type of approval rating (e.g. N100)
  • NIOSH label

Surgical Masks

Manufacturers of surgical masks provide proposed claims and data to the U.S.A's FDA office for review.



Respirators protect you from exposing yourself to airborne contaminants.

In the healthcare industry, it protects the wearer from being exposed to aerosols such as bacteria and viruses.

Surgical Masks

Surgical masks serve as barriers against spit, droplets, and splashes.

Face Seal/Fit


Respirators allow for a tight seal on the wearer’s face.

You should test the fit of a respirator on your face first to make sure that you will be well-protected.

Surgical Masks

Surgical face masks do not create a tight seal on faces.



Respirators with filters that can collect 95% of aerosol have 95 ratings.

While those that can collect 99% have 99 ratings.

For those that can collect about 99.97%, they are given a rating of 100.

Surgical Masks

Surgical masks are not effective in filtering small airborne particles.

Use Limitations


Respirators are generally for single use.

You should discard them when they:

  • Become deformed or damaged
  • No longer form a tight seal on your face
  • Become visibly dirty or wet
  • You are having difficulties in breathing through them
  • Become contaminated with bodily fluids such as nasal or respiratory secretions and blood

There are also some categories of respirators that you can rescue such as elastomeric masks. Just make sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

Surgical Masks

Surgical face masks should only be used once. Also, follow the manufacturer’s instructions.


In our discussion, you have learned that surgical masks are different from respirators.

Respirators are more effective in protecting you from airborne particles while surgical masks are not.

Surgical masks are only recommended in preventing large particles from contaminating you as well as limit you from spreading potential infections when you sneeze or cough.

We hope that this short article was able to answer most of your questions about surgical masks and respirators.