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What is the Difference Between a Face Mask and a Respirator?

Face Masks & Respirators

A woman wearing a face mask

Once upon a time, there were kings & queens with crowns on their heads. You must have surely heard stories with such a sentence. Now, in the future, people will write stories about people roaming in the streets with their face masks.

In the COVID-19 pandemic, it became absolutely necessary that one had to protect themselves from this pesky pathogen. Face masks & respirators cover an individual’s nose & mouth. The idea is to restrict the entry of pathogens from entering. This made these government-approved respirators & face masks compulsory in the pandemic as a preventive measure.

You must be wondering about the difference between a face mask & a respirator. In this article, we will be primarily focusing on distinguishing between a face mask & a respirator. So, let’s begin without any further ado!

Find out the difference between N95 and KN95 respirators.

What is a Face Mask?

The face mask is considered to be an umbrella term. It encompasses any piece of equipment or device that safeguards or covers the face, especially the mouth & the nasal pathway. A face mask can also be used as decorative equipment. The face masks we are talking about are medical equipment that covers one’s mouth & nose.

Surgical face mask

There are primarily three types of face masks used:

  1. Cloth Face Masks
  2. Surgical Face Masks
  3. Dust Face Masks

In the COVID-19 pandemic, cloth & surgical face masks were widely used as a means of protective measure. Let’s discuss them in detail.

Cloth Face Mask

A girl wearing a cloth face mask

These face masks were widely recommended by CDC & other health authorities due to the acute supply of surgical masks & respirators. Cloth face masks are made up of textiles commonly available and were manufactured in bulk. Cloth face masks are washable, reusable, and affordable. 

On the downside, cloth face masks (single-layer ones) are less effective than surgical face masks. Moreover, there are no regulatory guidelines or even a regulatory authority for the manufacturing of cloth masks.

DIY & Homemade cloth masks were encouraged by many experts, but a study found out that they are less effective in restricting pathogens when compared to commercially manufactured face masks.  The inefficiency of cloth masks to properly restrict the entry of pathogens is due to improper fit size. 

To increase the efficiency of the cloth face mask, the number of layers can be increased up to 4 layers. The increase in the number of layers directly impacts breathability & comfort. So, a multi-layered mask may have more efficiency, but at the cost of less comfort.

Surgical Face Mask

A human wearing a face mask

Surgical face masks are medical-grade, standardized, loosely-fitting face masks that protect an individual from pathogens. Surgical face masks are mostly single-use, disposable, and non-washable. 

Surgical face masks are always multi-layered, and the fabric is non-woven. They also consist of filters, which improve their efficiency. Surgical face masks are available in different thicknesses. The thickness influences comfort, breathability, and other properties. 

Note:- CDC recommends that the face masks should be discarded if they are damaged. Also, face masks must be removed with the help of ear loops only. After the face mask is removed, one has to wash their hands with soap & water. In its absence, a hand sanitizer comes handy.

What is a Respirator?

A respirator is a specially designed piece of protective equipment that helps in the efficient filtering of air-borne particles. A respirator is characterized by a close fit. There are multiple types of respirators. In this article, we are specifically discussing N95, KN95, FFP2 respirators.

Depending upon the regulatory authority, respirators are given their respective names. N95 respirators are monitored, tested, and manufactured under US standards. NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) ensures that N95, N99, N100 respirators undergo rigorous tests for multiple factors. KN95 respirators are regulated under Chinese standards. Whereas, FFP2 respirators are manufactured according to European standards.

N95 & KN95 respirators are expected to remove at least 95 percent of the airborne particles that are of the size of 0.3 microns.  FFP2 respirators have a filtering capacity of 92 percent that makes them comparable to the NIOSH-approved N95 respirators & Chinese-regulated KN95 respirators.

Key Differences 


Respirators are usually closely fitted. It makes them efficient in restricting pathogens and other particles. 

Face masks are loosely fitted. It greatly increases their comfort and breathability.

Comfort & Breathability

Respirators are not built for providing comfort. For better efficiency, respirators are close-fitted. Breathing is difficult when a respirator is worn.

Face masks provide comfort as they are loose-fitted. Moreover, there is no extra burden on the breathing effort.

Regulations & Standards 

Respirators are closely monitored, tested, and regulated by authorities. Manufacturers have to follow standards prescribed by these authorities.

Cloth Face masks are unregulated. They can be made at home too. Surgical masks, however, are medical-grade and manufactured under certain regulations.

When should one wear them?

Respirators are usually used when the hazard is quite high. Extremely contagious, hazardous situations where there is a high risk of contracting pathogens. 

Face masks can be used in areas with less risk of contracting pathogens.

FFP2 Respirator


Respirators have their approval rating (N95, N99, etc.) marked on them. 

Face masks don’t have any markings.


Respirators are manufactured in a tailor-made design. They are not meant to be decorative. 

Just like the respirators, the same is true about surgical face masks. Whereas, cloth masks can be designed according to one’s requirements.

Protection & Filtration

Respirators are used to protect an individual from airborne particles including pathogens. They have a high filtering capacity. For example, N99 respirators have a filtering capacity of at least 99 percent. 

Face masks can protect an individual from small droplets and other particles. They have low filtering capacity and require multi-layers & filters for better efficiency.    


Respirators are usually discarded after single-use, but multiple-use & washable respirators are also available.

Cloth face masks are reusable & washable, whereas surgical face masks are discarded after single-use.

Decorative Face Masks


Respirators & face masks have played a vital role in a pandemic. They have acted as protective barriers for humankind against pesky pathogen attackers. There are quite a few key differences between respirators & face masks. Though one can easily presume that both these pieces of equipment play the same role, it isn’t quite true. This article has shed light on the striking differences between the respirator & face mask.