A guide to face masks – which do you need and which will protect you

For the past few months with the COVID-19 pandemic raging worldwide has prompted all of us to wear facemasks and other protective gear. Whether one likes it or not, at least until we have a properly tested and effective vaccine with no adverse side effects, we have no choice but to wear a face mask to protect ourselves and the community. This leads to some of the questions which have been popping up, like Do I need to wear a mask? Which type of masks do we need? Which types of masks can help protect us from Covid19? Recent studies published in various journals, especially during the current pandemic period, have proven that wearing face-covering cuts down the risk of infection by 24% for simple cotton covering and up to 99% for a professional, medical-grade filtration mask. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) reflects the same view. They advise the public to wear face-covering in enclosed spaces where social distancing is not always possible or where one comes into contact with people one doesn’t usually meet to help reduce coronavirus spread.

Protective Masks Versus Respirator Masks

Air pollutants, chemicals, bacteria, and viruses that find their way into the environment can significantly impact our overall health. Over the years, facial masks have been immensely beneficial in providing the necessary protection and categorized as protective masks and respirator masks. Facial protective masks are used to cover a person’s face as a defense against poisonous or hazardous gases and chemicals. This type of mask will cover one’s face almost entirely and includes a facepiece or mask, along with a filter or cartridge device. A respirator mask is usually only effective at protecting against particles. These types of masks typically do not protect against chemicals, gases, or vapors and are intended for low hazard levels.

A What is a Protective Mask?

  • Protective masks are loose-fitting facial protective gear or simply masks which cover the mouth and nose.
  • They are designed for one-way protection to capture bodily fluid leaving the wearer.
  • They are worn during surgery to prevent coughing, sneezing, etc. on the vulnerable patient.

B What is a Respirator Mask?

  • Designed to create a facial seal, respirators are tight-fitting masks.
  • Non-valved respirators provide adequate two-way protection by filtering both inhaled and exhaled air
  • Designed to protect the wearer (when appropriately worn), up to the safety rating of the mask
  • Available as a disposable, half face, or full face.

Protective Masks Explained

A disposable mask or protective mask is a loose-fitting, facial covering that creates a physical barrier between potential contaminants in the immediate environment and the wearer’s nose and mouth. Masks are available in different thicknesses and with differing abilities to protect one from contact with liquids. These properties also affect how easily one can breathe through the face mask and how well it protects them.

Although a disposable or protective mask may be useful in blocking large-particle droplets and splashes, a face mask does not filter or block tiny particles in the air that may be transmitted by coughs, sneezes, or specific medical procedures.

Disposable masks are for one-time use only, and reusing them defeats the whole purpose of wearing the mask in the first place. If the mask is damaged or soiled or breathing through the mask becomes difficult, one must remove the face mask, discard it safely, and replace it with a new one. To safely discard a mask, place it in a plastic bag, put it in the household rubbish bin, and wash hands after handling the used mask.

The three main types of protective masks are as follows:

  1. 3-layer mask – This unisex mask comes with 3-layer construction and covers the nose and mouth. It constitutes a good quality inner and outer Spunbond material with 25 GSM, and the middle filter layer is made of Melt Blown material with 20 GSM. Its three-layered design ensures comfortable breathability, even when worn for extended hours. The three layers make filtration more reliable and promote cleaner air to breathe while also preventing bacterial contact. The 3 Ply Mask is lightweight, biodegradable, and has a super soft elastic ear band or ear loops, allowing the mask to remain in place covering one’s mouth and nose. It is recommended for the public to wear in enclosed spaces where social distancing is not always possible. 

  1. Type I Mask (Clinical) -Type 1 Mask is a pleat style mask with twin earloops that allows one to wear it quickly and easily. The pleated style of the mask ensures a close fit for extra protection. The Standard Type 1 Mask is suitable for cleaning and general use and is unsuitable for situations with a risk of fluid exposure. Healthcare workers use the clinical type 1 mask while caring for individuals in an extremely vulnerable group.  The masks are manufactured and tested to perform to specific requirements for Bacterial filtration efficiency (BFE), breathability, flow rate, and microbial cleanliness.
  2. Type IIR (Surgical) – These types of masks are recommended for healthcare workers working with any possible or confirmed cases of COVID-19. It is also recommended for patient care services, especially radiology, maternity, accident and emergency department, acute assessment area, or operating theatre. Surgical masks also help reduce exposure of the wearer’s saliva and respiratory secretions to others. The clinical mask helps block large-particle droplets and splashes that may contain viruses and bacteria, keeping them from reaching one’s mouth and nose. Type II masks have a higher bacteria filtering efficiency as compared to Type I masks. Type IIR masks are resistant to penetration of fluid splashes.

Respirators Explained

Respirator Face Masks are available as FFP1/2/3 and P1/2/3 standards and are used to protect from submicron particles such as toxic fumes and smoke. A respirator mask with high efficiency is effective at protecting against 0.3-micron size particles.

  1. A) Can a Respirator Mask Filter Coronavirus?

Respirators of class FFP2, FFP3 and N95 offer maximum filtration of particles and aerosols. They are the ones that offer best protection to the wearer from airborne infectious agents like  against contamination by a virus such as coronavirus, SARS and H1N1.


  1. B) What is the Difference Between FFP1, FFP2 & FFP3 disposable respirator face masks?

FFP1, FFP2, and FFP3 are EU certified respirator masks that protect against particulates such as dust particles, droplets, and aerosols. FFP1 mask is the least filtering of these, with a minimum aerosol filtration percentage of 80% and a maximum internal leak rate of 22%. FFP2 mask is better than FFP1 as it comes with a minimum aerosol filtration percentage of 94 % and a maximum internal leak rate of 8%. FFP3 masks are considered the best as they come with a minimum aerosol filtration percentage of 99% and a maximum internal leak rate of 2%. APF (Assigned Protection Factor) is defined as the factor by which the wearer is protected from hazardous substances. FFP1/2/3 masks have APF of 4, 10 and 20, respectively. This effectively means that FFP1 mask has an APF of 4 reduces the hazard of the wearer breathing in toxic substances by 4 times whereas the FFP3 mask has an APF of 20  will reduce the same hazard by 20 times.

  1. C) What is the purpose of the small valve at the front of some masks?

Some of the masks have a small valve at the front that makes it easier for the wearer to exhale the air. The valve’s presence makes the wearing of masks comfortable as a significantly less amount of moisture is built-up inside the mask. It also reduces the condensation on the spectacles caused by the mask. The valve-based respirator mask’s main problem is that they only filter air during the inhalation time and do not filter the exhaled air. Although the one-way filtration protects the wearer from others, it puts others around the wearer at risk as the exhaled air is not filtered. Due to this, the valve-based respirators are not used by medical practitioners during the COVID-19 pandemic times.

What are the Different Standards?

  1. A) Europe (FFP) 

Europe uses two different standards, namely FFP and P, maintained by the European Committee for Standardisation (CEN). The EN 149:2001 standards document defines the FFP or Filtering Face Piece score based on the FFP1, FFP2, and FFP3 types, whereas the  EN 143 standard defines the P1, P2, and P3 ratings. The FFP1/2/3 are the mask types, and P1/2/3 are the attachments filtering 80%, 94%, and 99.5% of airborne particulate matter.

  1. B) American (N)

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is the United States federal agency responsible for managing and maintaining face masks’ standards to make recommendations for preventing work-related injury and illness. NIOSH comes under the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIOSH air filtration rating describes the device’s ability to protect the wearer from dust and liquid droplets in the air. As per the standards, nine types of approved particulate filtering respirators are based on a combination of the efficiency and respirator series. The first part of the filter’s classification indicates the series using the letters N, R, or P to show the filter’s resistance to filtration efficiency degradation when exposed to oil-based aerosols.

  • N represents not resistant to oil and is used when oil particulates are not present.
  • R represents resistant to oil and is used when oil particulates are present, and the filter is disposed of after one shift
  • P for oil-proof is used when oil particulates are present, and the filter is re-used for more than one shift.

The second part of the notation is minimum filtration efficiency level, defined as the percentage of blocking 0.3-micron particles, namely 95, 99, and 100. Out of the resultant nine combinations, N95 and N99 respirator types are the most commonly discussed one.

  1. C) Chinese (KN) 

The standard document GB2626-2006 defines the Chinese standard and is similar to the American standard. It has the category KN (non-oily particles) and KP (oily particles), 90/95/100 versions. The KN95 theoretically is the same as American N95 or European FFP2.

Lifespan of a disposable respirator mask

A disposable respirator’s lifespan is about eight-hours or until the breathing resistance is too high for the wearer.


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