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Disposable Respirators vs. Medical Masks: Differences and what you need to know

A commonly asked question is what the difference is between disposable respirators and medical masks. While disposable respirators look very similar to masks used during surgery and other medical procedures, the two are actually designed for very different purposes.

Differences in function

The two types of protection differ in how they function. Masks are primarily designed to keep particles exhaled by the wearer – for example, saliva or mucus – from contaminating the patient and work environment. Alternately, disposable respirators protect the wearer against potentially hazardous particles, which include bioaerosols, within the work environment.

Differences in fit

Respirators are designed to seal to the face of the wearer whereas masks fit loosely. Masks do not have either adequate filtering or fitting attributes to provide respiratory protection for the wearer.

The chart below also helps to outline some of the key differences between the two types of protection:


Disposable Respirators Medical Masks
Reduce the wearer's exposure to certain airborne particles including those <100 microns in size that can be inhaled through the nose or mouth. Help prevent particles expelled by the wearer (such as saliva, mucus, etc.) from contaminating the patient and work environment. May also reduce the chance of blood and other bodily fluids contaminating the wearer's mouth and nose, if the mask has fluid-resistant properties.
Fit tightly to the face and creates a seal between the face and respirator to help ensure air is drawn through the filter. Fits loosely over the face and does not have adequate filtering characteristics.
Intended to protect the wearer from certain airborne contaminants such as bioaerosols. Intended to protect the patient and work environment from large particles expelled by the wearer.
Must be put on and taken off in a clean area and worn at all times the wearer is in the contaminated area. Typically worn for the duration of a specific procedure and then discarded for infection-control purposes.
Certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Required to perform under certain stringent test conditions before approval is granted. In Canada, regulated as a Class I medical device. In the US, it has been Food and Drug Administration cleared.
Combination Product (NIOSH-approved Respirator/Surgical Mask). Health Care Respirator: NIOSH-approved respirator Plus Class I Medical Device (Canada) and FDA Cleared (US). May also reduce the chance of blood and other bodily fluids contaminating the wearer's mouth and nose, when the respirator has fluid-resistant properties.  


3M manufactures world-class respirators and surgical masks and offers support and guidance to help keep you informed so that you can get the most out of these products.

Regardless of the type of protection you need, it’s always important to make sure your respirators and masks stay fresh and are ready to use. Like masks, disposable respirators have a defined shelf life that should always be adhered to.

To learn more about the different respirators and masks produced by 3M, visit us online at or contact 3M Canada Safety Centre at 1-800-267-4414.  For any questions you may have about 3M masks call 1-800-364-3577 or visit