PERSONAL PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT
N95 respirators and surgical masks are examples of personal protective equipment that are used to protect the wearer from airborne particles and from liquid contaminating the face. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also regulate N95 respirators.
It is important to recognize that the optimal way to prevent airborne transmission is to use a combination of interventions from across the hierarchy of controls, not just PPE alone.
N95 Respirators, Surgical Masks, and Face Masks
An N95 respirator is a respiratory protective device designed to achieve a very close facial fit and very efficient filtration of airborne particles. Note that the edges of the respirator are designed to form a seal around the nose and mouth. Surgical N95 Respirators are commonly used in healthcare settings and are a subset of N95 Filtering Facepiece Respirators (FFRs), often referred to as N95s.
The similarities among surgical masks and surgical N95s are:
- They are tested for fluid resistance, filtration efficiency (particulate filtration efficiency and bacterial filtration efficiency), flammability and biocompatibility.
- They should not be shared or reused.
A surgical mask is a loose-fitting, disposable device that creates a physical barrier between the mouth and nose of the wearer and potential contaminants in the immediate environment. Surgical masks are regulated under 21 CFR 878.4040. Surgical masks are not to be shared and may be labeled as surgical, isolation, dental, or medical procedure masks. They may come with or without a face shield. These are often referred to as face masks, although not all face masks are regulated as surgical masks.
Surgical masks are made in different thicknesses and with different ability to protect you from contact with liquids. These properties may also affect how easily you can breathe through the face mask and how well the surgical mask protects you.
If worn properly, a surgical mask is meant to help block large-particle droplets, splashes, sprays, or splatter that may contain germs (viruses and bacteria), keeping it from reaching your mouth and nose. Surgical masks may also help reduce exposure of your saliva and respiratory secretions to others.
While a surgical mask may be effective in blocking splashes and large-particle droplets, a face mask, by design, does not filter or block very small particles in the air that may be transmitted by coughs, sneezes, or certain medical procedures. Surgical masks also do not provide complete protection from germs and other contaminants because of the loose fit between the surface of the mask and your face.
Surgical masks are not intended to be used more than once. If your mask is damaged or soiled, or if breathing through the mask becomes difficult, you should remove the face mask, discard it safely, and replace it with a new one. To safely discard your mask, place it in a plastic bag and put it in the trash. Wash your hands after handling the used mask.