Choosing the Right Respirator

Respirators are needed in many industrial applications. They protect the respiratory tract, and sometimes the eye area, from dangerous, toxic, or contaminating substances such as fine dust, gases, or even viruses.

There are both half and full-face respirator masks available. Full-facepiece respirators cover the entire face while half-masks cover only the mouth and nose. FFP respirators are single-use masks.

As protective equipment, respirators are distinguished by their particle filtration capacity, which is defined by standards. In highly harmful environments, insulating respirators that supply the wearer with clean air are needed rather than ones that filter air.

Since the Coronavirus pandemic in the spring of 2020, many countries have made wearing masks in public places mandatory. Surgical masks, for example, are increasingly being used to protect against the virus. But not all masks are considered Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). While it should be noted that surgical masks are not PPE, we are including them in this buying guide because of their relevance in regard to COVID-19.

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  • What are the main criteria to consider when choosing a respirator?

    Respirators are mandatory for anyone working in a dusty environment or exposed to fumes, gases, or other toxic substances. They protect the wearer from harmful particles that could be inhaled or contaminate the face.

    Various types of respirators exist. To choose the respirator best suited to your needs, there are several criteria to consider:

    • Type of contaminant: Respirators provide protection against dust, gas, fumes, vapors, and aerosols. Depending on the contaminant, you’ll have to choose between a respirator that either filters or insulates.
    • Oxygen levels in the work environment: If oxygen levels are over 17%, you should choose a respirator that filters the air. If you’re in a confined space with oxygen levels below 17%, you must opt for a respirator that insulates clean air.
    • Half-mask or full-face respirator? Half-masks protect the respiratory tract. Full-facepiece respirators protect the respiratory tract as well as the eyes and fully seal the face.
    • Disposable or reusable mask? FFP respirators are disposable and can only be used for a certain amount of time. Half-masks and full-facepiece respirators are reusable, but their cartridge filters must be changed regularly. Finally, there are also single-use double-filter half-masks that protect against dust and gas. They are lighter than reusable half-masks but heavier than FFPs.
    • Duration of use: A single-use respirator should be discarded after eight hours of use. Similarly, the cartridge containing the filter in reusable half-masks and full-facepiece respirators must be changed regularly.
    • Valve or no valve: Wearing a respirator can be very uncomfortable (heat inside the mask, difficult to breathe in). Some respirators are equipped with an exhalation valve to enhance user comfort. This valve allows air to pass during exhalation and closes during inhalation. Although particles cannot penetrate the inside of the mask, the air exhaled is not filtered and can therefore contaminate the outside environment.
  • Filtering or insulating respirator?

    There are two categories of respiratory protection masks: insulating and filtering. The type of respirator you should choose will depend on several factors.

    Filter masks

    These respirators are fitted with filters that trap contaminants and purify the air the user breathes. They can only be used in oxygen-rich environments (oxygen levels must be above 17%).

    They are divided into two categories: negative pressure and positive pressure.

    Negative pressure respirators have no mechanical assistance; they are simply fitted with a filter and are suitable for short-term work. These include:

    • FFP1, FFP2, and FFP3 single-use filter masks that protect against contaminants such as dust, particles, or viruses, with a maximum duration use of eight hours.
    • Washable and reusable half-masks and full-facepiece respirators that require changing only the cartridge filter regularly.

    Positive pressure respirators, known as assisted ventilation masks, are equipped with a motorized ventilator that helps release exhaled air to improve user comfort. Both half-masks and full-face respirators can have assisted ventilation. The filter must be changed each time it is used or when there is particle buildup.


    Insulating masks

    These air-supplied respirators are supplied with breathable air from an unpolluted source. They are indispensable for long-term work in confined environments (sewers, pits) with low oxygen levels (below 17%), or when the concentration of the contaminant is too high and it cannot be filtered.

    Insulating masks are full-face masks. Compared to all other respirators, they offer superior protection because the user is protected from the contaminated zone at all times.

    There are two types of insulating masks: self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) units and supplied-air respirators (SAR).

    With a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), the user carries an oxygen tank that is connected to the mask via a hose. They are therefore able to freely move around the work area, however, the duration of use is limited by the amount of oxygen the tank can carry. This type of respirator has no filter.

    With a supplied-air respirator (SAR), clean air is supplied to the user via a hose connected to a compressor located outside the polluted work area. The user is therefore permanently connected to the hose and their movements are more constrained.

  • Full-facepiece or half-mask respirator?

    Dräger half-mask respirator

    FFP respirators protect against dust and particles, while half-masks and full-facepiece respirators are more protective against gases and vapors.

    Your choice between a half-mask or full-facepiece respirator depends on the nature of the pollutants present, their concentration level, and your working environment.

    Half-mask respirators

    Half-mask respirators cover the user’s nose, mouth, and chin without compromising their field of vision. They are effective in protecting against gases and vapors in working environments where oxygen levels exceed 17%. Their use is sufficient in environments where there is no danger of harming the eyes. Half-mask respirators are filter masks.

    Soft silicone half-masks are reusable and comfortable enough to wear for long periods of time. Disposable half-masks are lighter and silicone and latex-free. They can be worn with safety glasses since they are placed lower on the face.

    Full-facepiece respirators

    Full-facepiece respirators protect the same areas of the face as half-mask respirators, plus the eye area. They are recommended when there is a possible risk to the eyes as they ensure an airtight seal between the face and the respirator and provide maximum protection to the user.

    They are effective in protecting against toxic gases, fumes, and vapors in oxygen-rich work environments (full-facepiece filter respirators) but also in oxygen-poor work environments where oxygen levels are below 17% (full-facepiece insulating respirators).

    Single-filter full-facepiece respirators are made from elastomer or silicone. Some models feature a panoramic screen for a better field of view.

    Double-filter full-facepiece respirators feature a double air filter system with a valve to allow air to escape more easily. They are therefore more comfortable to wear and do not fog up.

    Full-facepiece respirators are widely used in the chemical, pharmaceutical, automotive, and gas industries.

    TYCO FIRE & INTEGRATED SOLUTION full-facepiece respirator


    Whether you choose a full-facepiece or half-mask respirator, it’s important to choose the right filter. There are three types of filters available: gas filters, particulate filters, and combined filters.

    Gas filters protect against toxic fumes, gases, and chemicals.

    Below is a summary of gas filters and their efficiency classes according to Directive 89/686/EEC.

    Particulate filters protect against dust, smoke, vapors, microorganisms, and viruses.

    Combined filters combine the features of gas and particulate filters and are needed to protect against aerosols and gas fumes, for example.

  • Surgical masks and FFP respirator masks--what are the differences?

    Medline surgical mask

    With the coronavirus pandemic and the wearing of masks made mandatory in many countries, two categories of masks have been popularized: surgical masks and FFP respirator masks. While FFP masks are indeed PPE, surgical masks are not. Here are the main differences between these two types of masks.

    Surgical masks

    Very much a part of our lives since the coronavirus pandemic, surgical masks are single-use medical devices designed to protect the wearer from projections around them.

    When a contagious patient wears a surgical mask, the mask traps the droplets of saliva he or she exhales, preventing them from spreading and being inhaled by those around them.

    This type of mask has no filtering properties. As a result, the wearer is not protected against small airborne particles such as viruses or gases.

    How effective are they?

    Surgical masks are tested when the user exhales (from inside to outside). The tests take into account their Bacterial Filtration Efficiency (BFE).

    In Europe, they must comply with the European standard EN 14683, which defines three levels of Bacterial Filtration Efficiency (BFE):

    • Type I: BFE > 95%
    • Type II: BFE > 98%
    • Type IIR: 98% splash-resistant

    Moldex-Metric FFP2 respirator

    In the USA, masks must comply with ASTM standards, which have three levels of protection (from level 1, low risk of exposure to fluids, to level 3, high risk of exposure to fluids).

    FFP respirators

    FFP (Filtering Face Piece) respirators, on the other hand, are filter masks designed to protect wearers against both spray droplets and airborne particles and viruses.

    FFP respirators are single-use masks designed to protect against fine particles, dust, and viruses in environments where oxygen levels exceed 17%.

    Like surgical masks, FFP respirators are disposable. They can only be worn for a maximum of eight hours and must be disposed of after use.

    FFP respirators are available in different shapes. Cup-shaped respirators are rigid and feature a nose bridge and seal. Flat-fold respirators are flexible and soft and also feature a nose bridge.

    In Europe, there are three classes of disposable masks: FFP1, FFP2, and FFP3.

  • What standards apply to respirators?

    FFP respirator classes

    FFP respirator masks are tested when the user inhales (from outside to inside). Tests take into account filter efficiency and leakage.

    In Europe, they must comply with the European standard EN 149:2001, which includes three classes of disposable particulate respirator masks (FFP1, FFP2, and FFP3).

    • FFP1 respirators are the least filtering of the three, with a minimum filtration efficiency of 80% and a maximum inward leakage of 22%. This respirator is mainly used as a dust mask (for home renovations and miscellaneous work).
    • FFP2 respirators have a minimum filtration efficiency of 94% and a maximum inward leakage of 8%. They are mainly used in construction, agriculture, and by healthcare professionals in protection against flu viruses.
    • FFP3 respirators are the most filtering of all FFP respirators. With a minimum filtration efficiency of 99% and a maximum inward leakage of 2%, they protect against very fine particles such as asbestos.

    In the USA, respirator masks 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 resistance to oil:

    • Class N: Not resistant to oil. For N95, N99, and N100 classes, the number following the letter N indicates the percentage of airborne particles filtered.
    • Class R: Resistant to oil for up to eight hours. Here again, the numbers following the letter R indicate the percentage of particles filtered.
    • Class P: Fully resistant to oil. There are also P95, P99, and P100 classes available.

    Summary Table of Respirator Efficiency Classes:

    Protection Class FFP1 FFP2 FFP3
    Contaminant Non-toxic fine dust
    Ferrous metals
    Fine toxic particles
    Oil mist
    Very fine particles
    Ceramic fibers
    Applications Textile industry, Crafts, Metallurgy, Mining, Carpentry Textile industry, Welding, Carpentry, Cabinetmaking,
    Metal cutting,
    Laboratory work,
    Agriculture (bird flu)
    Short-term work in contact with asbestos or legionella,
    Protecting against pollution,
    Metal cutting,
    Pharmaceutical industry
    Filtration Efficiency 80% 94% 99%
    Other Characteristics Without valve Without valve With valve

    Summary Table of Filter Efficiency Classes:

    Filter Type Gas filters Particulate filters
    Protection Class Class 1
    Gas concentrations of less than 0.1% by volume
    Protective against solid non-toxic particles (calcium carbonate)
    Class 2
    Cartridge filter
    Gas concentrations of less than 0.5% by volume
    Protective against hazardous or irritating aerosols, solids, and liquids (silica, sodium carbonate, etc.)
    Class 3
    Canister on belt
    Gas concentrations of less than 1% by volume
    Protective against toxic aerosols, solids, and/or liquids (beryllium, nickel, uranium, etc.)
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