The Difference Between Surgical Masks and N95s

The Difference Between Surgical Masks and N95s

With the entrance of PPE in the public’s everyday vocabulary, it is important to note differences in masks and respirators.

It’s a question that has grown in popularity this year and with good reason: What is the difference between a surgical mask and a N95 respirator?

While both may be referred to as “masks,” these two protective devices are actually used for different functions. From how they fit the user’s face to the intended uses, surgical masks and N95 respirators are very different kinds of masks. Below is a breakdown of what separates surgical masks from N95s and the levels of protection that they provide.


Surgical Masks

The FDA says “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.” By design, a surgical mask is intended to prevent physical liquids such as splashes or sprays from blood or sputum from entering the environment. The FDA adds that a surgical mask may be effective in blocking splashes and large-particle droplets, but it does not filter or block very small particles in the air that may be transmitted by coughs, sneezes or certain medical procedures.

Surgical masks are designed to cover the mouth and nose loosely and are not sized for individual fit. One of the major differences between a surgical mask and a N95 filtering face piece respirator is that surgical masks are not intended to provide respiratory protection to the wearer since they do not effectively filter smaller airborne particles.

In addition, surgical masks have not met all the standards that a N95 or higher-level respirator has. They are not approved by the National Institute for Occupation Safety and Health (NIOSH), but instead are cleared by the FDA. Surgical masks also are not intended to provide a tight-fitting seal on users’ faces. Generally speaking, surgical masks are not intended for the wearer’s protection from small particles, but rather to protect the surgical field from contamination by the wearer.


This article originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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