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Respirators - Respirators Versus Surgical Masks

Is there a difference between a respirator and a surgical mask?

Yes. This document outlines some of the key difference between respirators and surgical masks. Health care workers routinely use surgical masks as part of their personal protective equipment. However, surgical masks are not respirators and are not certified as such.

Please also see the OSH Answers document on Respiratory Protection Against Airborne Infectious Agents for Health Care Workers for more information about respirators as used in health care settings.

When should workers wear a respirator or a surgical mask?

The decision whether or not to workers need to use either respirators or surgical masks must be based upon a hazard analysis of the worker’s specific work environment and the protective properties of each type of personal protective equipment.

Respirators are designed to help reduce the wearer’s respiratory exposure to airborne contaminants such as particles, gases, or vapours. Respirators and filters must be selected based on the hazards present. They come in various sizes and styles, and should be individually selected to fit the wearer's face and to provide a tight seal. A proper seal between the user's face and the respirator forces inhaled air to be pulled through the respirator's filter material, thereby providing protection.

Surgical masks, also known as procedural or medical masks, are designed to help prevent contamination of the work environment or a sterile field from large particles generated by the wearer/worker (e.g., to prevent the spread of the wearer’s spit or mucous). Surgical masks may also be used to help reduce the risk of splashes or sprays of blood, body fluids, secretions, and excretions from reaching the wearer’s mouth and nose. Surgical masks may also be worn by patients to help limit the spread of infections.

Can you tell the difference between a respirator and a surgical mask just by looking at it?

The difference is not always immediately apparent. A respirator will be marked with its approval rating (e.g., N95, N100, etc.). Surgical masks do not have this rating. (Note there are also “surgical masks” that have been rated as respirators (i.e., N95 surgical masks).)

Always be sure you are wearing the right respirator or mask for the hazards present and task you are performing.

What are some of the differences?

The table below outlines some of the key differences between respirators and surgical masks.

Note: In this document, N95 surgical masks are included in the general category of respirators.

Key Element Respirators Surgical Masks
Evaluation, Testing, and Certification Respirators are evaluated, tested and certified by National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) to meet set minimum performance requirements, including filter efficiency and breathing resistance.

A NIOSH approved respirator will have the following text printed on the respirator:
  • the type of approval (e.g., N95), and
  • the manufacturer's name
Surgical mask manufacturers provide data and proposed claims to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States of America for review.

The FDA reviews data submitted by the manufacturer in comparison to other surgical masks already cleared by the FDA.
Purpose Respirators protect from exposure to airborne particles. In healthcare, protects from exposure to biological aerosols including viruses and bacteria. Surgical masks are a barrier to splashes, droplets, and spit.
Fit (Face seal) Respirators are designed to seal tight to the face of the wearer.

Wearers should be fit tested to make sure they are using the appropriate model and size of respirator to get the best fit.
Surgical masks are not designed to seal tight against the face.
Filtration Respirator filters that collect at least 95% of the challenge aerosol are given a 95 rating. Those filters that collect at least 99% receive a “99” rating. And those that collect at least 99.97% (essentially 100%) receive a “100” rating.

See the OSH Answers on Respiratory Protection Against Airborne Infectious Agents for Health Care Workers for more information about the N, R and P ratings.
Surgical masks do not effectively filter small particles from the air.
Use Limitations Generally, single use. Should be discarded when it:
  • becomes damaged or deformed,
  • no longer forms an effective seal to the face,
  • becomes wet or visibly dirty,
  • breathing through it becomes more difficult, or
  • becomes contaminated with blood, respiratory or nasal secretions, or other bodily fluids.
Some types of respirators can be reused (e.g., elastomeric masks).

Follow manufacturer’s instructions.
One time use (one patient encounter).

Follow manufacturer’s instructions.

Source: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), 2016. Respirator Trusted-Source Information – Section 3: Ancillary Respirator Information.
Note: See the NIOSH page for further distinction between respirators, surgical masks, and N95 surgical masks.

What should a workplace do when respirators or surgical masks are required?

Employers should have a written respirator program that describes the procedures for selecting and using respiratory protective equipment. The correct use of a respirator is just as important as selecting the correct respirator for the hazards present.

The CSA Standard Z94.4-11 (R2016) - Selection, use, and care of respirators outlines respirator program elements. These elements include:

  • roles and responsibilities
  • hazard assessment
  • respirator selection
  • training
  • respirator fit testing
  • use of respirators
  • cleaning, inspection, maintenance, and storage of respirators
  • health surveillance
  • program evaluation, and
  • recordkeeping

Document last updated on July 11, 2017

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Although every effort is made to ensure the accuracy, currency and completeness of the information, CCOHS does not guarantee, warrant, represent or undertake that the information provided is correct, accurate or current. CCOHS is not liable for any loss, claim, or demand arising directly or indirectly from any use or reliance upon the information.