The Differences Between Disposable Respirators and Surgical Masks


Publisher’s Note (January 30, 2020): For quick reference, please see this technical bulletin entitled, “Respirators and Surgical Masks: A Comparison”

ST. PAUL, Minn. – While disposable respirators look similar to masks used during surgery and other medical procedures, the two are designed for very different purposes.

First off, the two types of protection differ in how they function. Surgical masks are primarily made to keep particles breathed out by the wearer – for example, saliva or mucus – from contaminating the work environment. Respirators, on the other hand, protect the wearer against potentially hazardous particles created by the work environment.

The two types also fit differently, with respirators sealing tightly to the face and surgical masks fitting more loosely. Respirators include specialized filter media, while masks typically do not. Wear time and certain regulatory standards also differ between the two.

Let’s take a closer look below, which will also help your staff better understand the differences:

3M disposable respirators 3M healthcare mask
Disposable Respirators Surgical Masks
Particles Reduces the wearer's exposure to certain airborne particles, including those <100 that can be inhaled through the noise or mouth. Helps prevent particles expelled by the wearer (such as saliva, mucous, etc.) from contaminating the work environment. Also reduces the chance of blood and other bodily fluids entering the wearer's mouth and nose.
Respirator Fit Fits tightly to the face and creates a seal between the face and respirator to help ensure all air is drawn through the filter. Fits loosely over the face and does not typically include a filter.
Respirator Protection Intended to protect the wearer from substances in the work environment. Intended to protect the work environment (including patients) from substances expelled by the wearer.
Respirator Wear Time 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.
Respirator Certification Certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Required to perform under certain stringent test conditions before approval is granted. Cleared for sale by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Tests may be conducted but manufacturer-submitted data is usually submitted for approval.

3M manufactures both respirators and surgical masks, but we also offer support and guidance to help keep you informed about how to get the most from these products. We’ve developed the 3M Center for Respiratory Protection to assist customers who might not have access to a full-time safety manager for emergency preparedness and infection prevention. Check out our site for more information about choosing the right respirator for your work environment. You’ll also find an opportunity to sample and order our products.

Also, no matter the type of protection you need, it’s important to make sure your respirators stay fresh and ready to use. That’s why we offer the 3M™ Disposable Respirator Stockpile Maintenance Program, which helps you develop a plan for rotating your stock and sustainably disposing of N95 disposable respirators. Visit us at for more information, or ask your 3M sales representative how you can sign up for this program.