What is the difference between a surgical mask, an N95 respirator, and a cloth mask?


Each mask provides different levels of protection and serves a different purpose, here are the differences between a surgical mask, N95 respirator, and a cloth mask - 


Surgical masks are - 

  • loose-fitting, covering the nose and mouth
  • designed for one-way protection, to capture bodily fluid leaving the wearer
  • worn during surgery to prevent coughing, sneezing, etc on the vulnerable patient
  • NOT designed to protect the wearer
  • the vast majority of masks do not have a safety rating assigned to them (e.g. NIOSH or EN)

Respirators are - 

  • tight-fitting masks, designed to create a facial seal
  • difficult to breathe through
  • difficult to fit without proper know-how
  • non-valved respirators provide good two-way protection - filtering both in- and outflow of air
  • designed to protect the wearer (when worn properly), up to the safety rating of the mask
  • available as half-face or full face

Cloth masks are:

  • affordable
  • comes in different styles and colours
  • tight-fitting but comfortable to wear
  • secured with ties or ear loops
  • multi-layered 
  • breathable 
  • reusable: Can be washed without damage 


Which one should members of the public use?

The CDC recommends that members of the public who are not in close contact with COVID-19 patients wear cloth masks to reserve respirators and surgical masks for doctors, nurses, and paramedics.

A simple cloth face is meant to slow the spread of the virus and prevent people who may be (unknowingly) infected from transmitting it to others. These, however, are NOT equivalent to surgical masks or N-95 respirators and should not be used as a substitute for proper hygiene (handwashing and coughing etiquette). 

Note - cloth masks should NOT be placed on young children under age 2, anyone who has trouble breathing, is unconscious, or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.

Want to learn how to make your own mask? Click here for instructions.

FAQ Categories: