What is a Respirator Mask?

Mary McMahon

A respirator mask is a piece of equipment worn over the mouth and nose to provide filtered air to breathe. Respirator masks are used for safety in environments where people might be at risk from inhaled pollutants ranging from paint fumes to dangerous bacteria. Masks designed for use in a variety of settings are available through safety supply companies, scientific suppliers, and construction supply companies. Keeping a basic respirator mask on hand in an emergency kit is recommended for households in some regions, and people who work in conditions where they might inhale hazardous substances are usually advised to wear respirator masks while working.

A man wearing a respirator.
A man wearing a respirator.

The most basic respirator mask is a simple shield made from fibrous material. The mask is designed to trap particulate materials like dust, soot, sawdust, and so forth. Fumes can still enter through the mask and very small particulates can also penetrate the shield. These types of respirator masks are rated by the size of particulates excluded to give people an idea of the settings where their use is appropriate. A rating like N95 means that testing shows the mask blocks 95% of particles.

A basic respirator mask does not protect the wearer from fumes.
A basic respirator mask does not protect the wearer from fumes.

Other respirator masks consist of filter cartridges attached to a nose and mouthpiece. These are designed to trap more particulates and can also filter out gases in the air for safety in environments where people may be exposed to these types of hazards. The mask can also be worn with eye protection to keep the eyes safe, along with other accessories like hoods to cover the face and neck. In a supplied air respirator, the mask creates a tight seal and the wearer breathes in air from a separate air supply. This option is used in settings where it is not possible to completely filter the air for safety through a mask alone.

Some respirator mask designs are disposable. These are often seen in health care settings and construction, where people want protection from basic hazards and may need to change masks between patients or jobs. Others are designed to be reused. Cartridges can be replaced as needed in masks with cartridge designs, allowing people to put in fresh cartridges as older ones become clogged. Some masks can be sterilized between uses to allow multiple people to use them.

Having a respirator mask around can be helpful for working on household projects where people will be painting, sanding, or engaging in other tasks where particulate materials and fumes will be released. Such masks can also be helpful if there is an advisory about epidemic disease, or in regions where smog and pollution are heavy. Wearing masks can protect the lungs and airways while people are outdoors in polluted conditions.

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