Which Masks Protect Against Coronavirus?

Not sure to buy a Surgical Mask or Respirator Mask? As the world faces an undersupply of face masks and other PPE against the Corona Virus. People are unsure of which kind of masks protect against Covid-19? There are various types of masks on the market, and not all of them are effective against this virus. So, which mask offers the best protection?

Surgical Masks vs Respirator Mask

There are two different main types of masks: Surgical Mask and respirator Mask

Surgical Mask

A Surgical mask is a one-time disposable use medical device that protects against infections transmitted by droplets. These droplets can be droplets of saliva or secretions from the upper respiratory tract when the wearer exhales.

If worn by the caregiver, the surgical mask protects the patient and his or her environment (air, surfaces, equipment, surgical site). If worn by a contagious patient, it prevents the patient from contaminating his or her surroundings and environment. These masks should not be worn for more than 3 to 8 hours.

A surgical mask can also protect the wearer from the risk of splashes of biological fluids. In this case, the surgical mask must have a waterproof layer. It can also be equipped with a visor to protect the eyes. But a surgical mask does not protect against “airborne” infectious agents so it will not prevent the wearer from being potentially contaminated by a virus such as a coronavirus.

Respirator Mask

A respirator mask is a personal protective equipment that prevents the wearer from inhaling aerosols (dust, smoke, mist) as well as vapours or gases (disinfectants, anesthetic gases) that are health hazards. It protects the wearer from airborne infectious agents, i.e. against contamination by a virus such as a coronavirus, SARS, H1N1, etc.

Respirators are divided into two categories: insulating and filtering. Filtering respirators consist of a facepiece and a filtering device. Sometimes the filter element is integrated into the facepiece. Depending on the type of filter, the mask will either be effective only against particles, only against certain gases and vapours, or against particles, gases and vapours.

Filtering respirators can sometimes also be equipped with an exhalation valve to improve user comfort. The valve prevents condensation inside the mask, misting on the glasses and helps the user breathe in and out easily.

It should be noted that respirators also protect those who wear them from inhaling “droplets” of infectious agents. Respirators can be disposable or reusable. In the second case, it is possible to replace the filter when it is full.

What Are the Standards?

Each of these two types of masks is subject to different standards and regulations depending on the country or geographical area.

Surgical masks are tested in the direction of exhalation (from inside to outside). The tests take into account the efficiency of bacterial filtration.

In Europe, they must comply with the European standard EN 14683, which has three levels of bacterial filtration efficiency (BFE1, BFE2, Type R). In the United States, they must respect ASTM standards which have three levels of protection (from low risk of exposure to fluids to high risk of exposure to fluids).

Respirators are tested in the direction of inspiration (from outside to inside). The tests take into account the efficiency of the filter and leakage to the face.

In Europe, they must meet the European standard EN 149: 2001, which has three classes of disposable particulate respirators (FFP1, FFP2 and FFP3).

  • FFP1 refers to the least filtering of the three masks with an aerosol filtration of at least 80% and leakage to the inside of a maximum 22%. This mask is mainly used as a dust mask (home renovations and various types of work).
  • FFP2 masks have a minimum of 94% filtration percentage and maximum 8% leakage to the inside. They are mainly used in construction, agriculture, and healthcare professionals against influenza viruses. They are currently used for protection against the coronavirus.
  • FFP3 masks are the most filtering mask of the FFPs. With a minimum filtration percentage of 99% and a maximum 2% leakage to the inside, they protect against very fine particles such as asbestos.


In the United States, respirators must meet NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) standards. Within this standard, there are several classes of respirators, depending on the degree of oil resistance:

  • Class N: no oil resistance. A distinction is made between N95, N99 and N100. The number after the letter indicates the percentage of filtration of suspended particles.
  • Class R: mask resistant to oil for up to eight hours. Here again, a distinction is made between R95, R99 and R100.
  • Class P: a completely oil-resistant mask. There are also P95, P99 and P100.

P2 Mask vs an N95 Mask

There is not much difference between an N95 mask and a P2 mask. The name is often used interchangeably. The main difference is which country has assessed the mask. The N95 is the NIOSH (USA testing requirements.) and the P2 represents the EC (European testing requirements) and KN95 (China testing requirements). P2 masks in Australia are usually sold as meeting the Australian and NZ Standard: AS/NZS 1716:2012.

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