Medical masks and respirators: Overview

Learn about the many different types of masks and respirators and their use.

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About masks

There are many types of masks.

Medical masks

Medical masks are loose-fitting. They are intended to be used by health care providers and patients in a health care setting. They may also be used by the general public.

The main purpose of medical masks is to help prevent respiratory germs from spreading from the wearer to others. While they may offer some protection to the wearer from infectious particles and aerosols, this protection is limited because they do not form a seal against the user's face.

Surgical medical masks

Medical masks designated as "surgical medical masks" are worn by health care providers during surgical procedures. They help prevent respiratory germs spreading from the wearer to the environment. They also protect the wearer from exposure to pressurized fluids (for example, blood spray) and particulate material (for example, from materials used in the surgery).

Transparent medical masks

You cannot see through standard medical masks. A transparent medical mask makes it possible to see the mouth of the wearer. Visual cues are important to some people with speech or hearing impairments and special learning needs. They also make it easier for the wearer to communicate.

Non-medical masks or barrier face coverings

Non-medical masks (sometimes called barrier face coverings) are generally made of a variety of different fabrics, such as cotton. They come in a range of shapes and styles, and are used by the general public.

Like medical masks, non-medical masks or face coverings offer some protection from infectious particles and aerosols. But this protection is limited because these masks do not form a seal against the user's face.

About respirators

Respirators fit tight around the nose and mouth. This is intended to create a seal against the face that prevents air from escaping. Respirators provide better protection against particulates and aerosols than medical masks since they are also a better filter.

Respirators are used by health care providers and patients in settings where respiratory protection is required. For the best possible protection, users should be fitted with a model that gives them the best seal against the face.

There are many types of respirators. The most common types are made of a soft polymer material (such as polypropylene) and are secured with elastic head straps. There are also specialized types (such as elastomeric respirators, surgical respirators or respirators with exhalation valves).

Surgical respirators

Respirators labelled as "surgical respirators" have been designed and tested for fluid resistance and flammability. This helps to protect the wearer from exposure to pressurized fluids, such as pressurized blood in a surgical setting.

Health care providers use surgical respirators when they are undertaking medical, surgical and other high-risk procedures.

Elastomeric or reusable respirators

Elastomeric respirators have facepieces made out of thermoplastic, synthetic rubber, natural rubber or a combination of these materials. Many of these respirators have replaceable filters that are inserted into the facepiece.

These types of respirators can be reused, as long as the filters are replaced regularly as stated in the manufacturer's instructions.

Respirators with exhalation valves

Exhalation valves help make the respirator more comfortable for the person wearing it. Respirators with exhalation valves protect the user but do not prevent exhaled particles or aerosols from being transmitted into the environment.

You should choose a different respirator and avoid wearing these types of respirators in settings where:

Industrial respirators

Industrial respirators are used in construction, welding and building renovations. Depending on the type of industrial respirator, they protect the wearer from inhaling particles that are generated from activities that create:

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