Updated: May 11, 2020
N95 respirators and surgical masks (face masks) are examples of personal protective equipment that are used to protect the wearer from airborne particles and from liquid contaminating the face. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also regulate N95 respirators.
It is important to recognize that the optimal way to prevent airborne transmission is to use a combination of interventions from across the hierarchy of controls, not just PPE alone.
CDC Recommends Cloth Face Coverings for Use by the General Public
The CDC recommends that members of the public use simple cloth face coverings when in a public setting to slow the spread of the virus, since this will help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others. For more information, see the CDC’s Recommendation Regarding the Use of Cloth Face Coverings, Especially in Areas of Significant Community-Based Transmission.
The best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to this virus. However, as a reminder, the CDC always recommends everyday preventive actions, such as hand washing and maintaining at least 6 feet of social distancing, to help prevent the spread of respiratory diseases.
Surgical Masks (Face Masks)
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. Surgical masks are regulated under 21 CFR 878.4040. Surgical masks are not to be shared and may be labeled as surgical, isolation, dental, or medical procedure masks. They may come with or without a face shield. These are often referred to as face masks, although not all face masks are regulated as surgical masks.
Surgical masks are made in different thicknesses and with different ability to protect you from contact with liquids. These properties may also affect how easily you can breathe through the face mask and how well the surgical mask protects you.
If worn properly, a surgical mask is meant to help block large-particle droplets, splashes, sprays, or splatter that may contain germs (viruses and bacteria), keeping it from reaching your mouth and nose. Surgical masks may also help reduce exposure of your saliva and respiratory secretions to others.
While a surgical mask may be effective in blocking splashes and large-particle droplets, a face mask, by design, does not filter or block very small particles in the air that may be transmitted by coughs, sneezes, or certain medical procedures. Surgical masks also do not provide complete protection from germs and other contaminants because of the loose fit between the surface of the face mask and your face.
Surgical masks are not intended to be used more than once. If your mask is damaged or soiled, or if breathing through the mask becomes difficult, you should remove the face mask, discard it safely, and replace it with a new one. To safely discard your mask, place it in a plastic bag and put it in the trash. Wash your hands after handling the used mask.
An N95 respirator is a respiratory protective device designed to achieve a very close facial fit and very efficient filtration of airborne particles.
The 'N95' designation means that when subjected to careful testing, the respirator blocks at least 95 percent of very small (0.3 micron) test particles. If properly fitted, the filtration capabilities of N95 respirators exceed those of face masks. However, even a properly fitted N95 respirator does not completely eliminate the risk of illness or death.