Face Mask Types: 7 Most Popular Face Masks, Differences & Medical Classifications

With the current outbreak of the easily transmittable coronavirus, it is important to be aware of the different types of available face masks.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended that everyone wear some type of face mask. This is recommended in places where it may be difficult to keep a distance of six feet from another person. 

face masks
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Face masks are crucial in helping to prevent the spread of infected droplets. If a person who has COVID-19 coughs, sneezes or even speaks, they can transmit infected droplets to another person.

A face mask can block contaminated sputum particles with coronavirus from spreading into the air and infecting others. 

Face masks are most effective in protecting those who come into close contact with you but do not guarantee that you are protected from contracting the virus.

With so many different types of face masks available, it can be confusing when trying to determine each face mask’s function and health rating.

Which face mask should I wear? Will this face mask protect me from the coronavirus? Which face mask has the most effective health benefits? 

According to the FDA, the most effective face masks should have the “4 Fs”:

  • Filtration – mask provided with filter
  • Fluid Resistance – protected against spray and splashes
  • Features – ear loops and eyewear
  • Fitted correctly – nose and mouth covered

The following list gives a detailed description of the different types of face masks available. This can help slow down the spread of the COVID-19 virus. 

1. N95 Mask

N95 masks
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N95 masks are one of the most effective types of face masks to wear when protecting against sprays of droplets from the nose and mouth. 

Healthcare workers and people with a higher risk of exposure to the virus use N95 respirator masks because of their effective filter. N95 masks feature a filter that can protect against 95% of infected particles that circulate in the air.

N95 respirator masks are more beneficial when worn correctly, and can minimize exposure of small and large airborne particles.

One of the N95’s functions is to promote minimal leakage of droplets from the border of the mask due to its tightly fitted feature.

N95 masks have been tested and approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and wearers must go through a fit testing before donning the mask.

In addition, the wearer must carry out a seal check and ensure that the respirator seal has not been tampered with. 

N95 respirator masks are disposable face masks. It is highly recommended to discard N95 masks after each use to avoid contamination of bodily fluids or if it becomes damaged.

According to ASTM, N95 face masks hold a level 3, maximum barrier protection against infected droplets and other bodily fluids.

2. Surgical Mask

surgical face masks
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Surgical masks are another type of face mask worn to protect against splashes of bodily fluids and have been tested and cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The function of a surgical mask is to minimize harmful bodily fluids such as blood and vomit from contaminating the wearer.

Surgical masks also protect others from being exposed to the wearer’s respiratory particles, but do not protect the wearer from leakage around the rim of the mask when the wearer inhales.

Unlike the N95 respirator mask, surgical masks do not filter out viruses such as COVID-19 but instead protect against particle splashes. 

Most surgical masks are blue in color and are made with multiple layers of fabric. Surgical masks have bands that hook around the ears, which make them more loosely fitted in comparison to the N95 mask.

Reusing a surgical mask is not recommended as wearers are encouraged to discard the face mask after each encounter with another person. 

Surgical masks score a level 3 from the ASTM for providing a maximum barrier protection against infected droplets and other bodily fluids.

3. Activated Carbon Respirator Masks

activated carbon respirator masks
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Activated carbon respirator face masks are an alternative face mask to protect against splashes of particles from the nose and mouth. This is due to the barrier they provide against carbon emissions and pollution.

Activated carbon respirator masks contain a filter that functions by reducing the amount of pollution that the wearer inhales. 

Activated carbon respirator masks are non-medical personal protective equipment (PPE), but they can be useful in the fight against the spread of COVID-19.

In terms of the current pandemic, active carbon respirator masks can limit the spread of infected droplets caused by sneezing and coughing. 

However, the CDC recently issued a statement regarding counterfeit respirator masks that are being sold as NIOSH-approved.

The CDC are concerned that shoppers will purchase activated carbon filter masks that may not be able to provide respiratory protection for its wearers.

NIOSH-approved face masks come with an approval label attached on the mask itself or on the packaging. 

Active carbon respirator masks are non-medical face masks and therefore, do not hold a standard health rating.

However, their function does provide a barrier between the spread of airborne droplets from one person to another. 

4. Dust Mask

dust masks
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Dust masks are an effective type of face mask to wear when protecting the wearer against non-toxic dust particles.

These particular masks are made from a flexible paper that cover the nose and mouth and can be purchased from hardware stores.

It is not guaranteed that dust masks protect against hazardous airborne viruses but instead, protect against occupational respiratory diseases.

It is common for people to wear a dust mask when carrying out dusty DIY activities that involve sawdust, smoke and fibers.

Although dust masks look similar to N95 respirator masks, they do not filter out as many harmful particles.

Dust masks are only capable of stopping liquid droplets from coming out, and do not filter external air from coming in.

This is due to dust masks being equipped with just one strap, which causes a loosely fitted seal against the wearer’s face.

On the other hand, dust masks are resistant to oil particles that help protect against both liquid and solids but are only certified to protect for up to 8 hours.

This makes paper dust masks an effective disposable face mask for blocking the contamination of infected particles.

Moreover, dust masks are not reusable and should be disposed of after being in contact with others.

After visiting the grocery store or the pharmacy, it’s important to discard the dust mask in order to minimize the risk of spreading infected droplets.

Finally, dust masks are non-medical masks and are not approved by the NIOSH therefore, do not have standard health ratings.

However, they function by providing a barrier between the spread of airborne droplets from one person to another, which can be effective when slowing the spread of a virus.

5. Neck Gaiter Face Masks

neck gaiter
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Neck gaiters are a recreational type of face mask that can provide an effective barrier from respiratory emissions, but are not scientifically proven to do so. 

Otherwise referred to as “buffs,” neck gaiters are mostly worn when fishing to protect the wearer from the sun.

These masks look similar to a scarf except they come up over the nose and mouths as well as sheltering the neck.

However, many people are unsure as to whether or not their neck gaiter can function as a face mask and safely protect them and others from the spread of COVID-19. 

In response to these concerns, BUFF® Headwear made a statement in April, 2020 explaining whether or not neck gaiters can act as an effective face shield against COVID-19.

They announced that even though their neck gear does protect the wearer from many of nature’s elements, they are not scientifically proven to protect you from contracting or spreading a virus or disease.

Neck gaiters are often made from a thick fleece fabric, but do not guarantee protection from COVID-19.

When wearing a neck gaiter in response to the coronavirus, it is highly recommended to adhere to strict social distancing rules and keep a six feet distance from others. 

Neck gaiters are reusable and should always be sanitized after being out in public. The easiest method of disinfecting your face mask is to place it in a pot of boiling water for 5 minutes.

Keep in mind, your face mask may get damaged the more you boil it. The World Health Organization (WHO) also recommends washing fabric face masks in the washing machine at 140 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Neck gaiters are non-medical face masks and do not have a standard health rating. However, their function does provide a barrier between the spread of airborne droplets between one person to another. 

6. Neoprene Mask

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Neoprene masks are a type of face mask specifically designed for sportswear and can be effective in protecting the wearer from external elements.

Neoprene face masks shield the wearer from harsh weather conditions and provide a thick layer of fabric over the nose and mouth. 

Because neoprene masks have a thick, thermal quality, they can be effective in preventing the spread of droplets from the nose and mouth depending on the design of the mask. 

It is recommended that neoprene masks be washed in a washing machine at 140 degrees Fahrenheit after every public encounter with others.  

Neoprene masks are non-medical face masks which do not make them eligible for a standard health rating.

However, they do function by implementing a respiratory barrier between one person and another, that can help prevent the spread of airborne droplets.

7. Cloth Masks

cloth masks
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Cloth face masks are a type of DIY face mask that can act as an effective barrier between the spread of respiratory emissions from one individual to another.

In an effort to minimize the spread of COVID-19, the CDC have recently released a detailed step-by-step guide on how to make your own cloth face mask.

Following the update on April 3, 2020 all Americans are required to wear a face mask when out in public.

A homemade face mask can slow the spread of the coronavirus disease by blocking the release of airborne particles from the nose and mouth. 

The CDC have outlined that fabric face masks should fit snug but comfortable on the face.

In order for a homemade fabric face mask to function, you can use hair ties as ear loops that will hook securely around your ear. 

It is highly recommended to use at least two layers of fabric to shield your mouth and nose. Materials such as t-shirts, bandanas and tea-towels can be used when creating a makeshift face mask.

The CDC also suggests washing your homemade fabric face masks regularly at 140 degrees Fahrenheit depending on how much the wearer uses it. 

Cloth masks do not have a standard health rating because they are not medical face masks.

However, experts believe that as long as your DIY face masks are multi-layered, they can provide a barrier between the spread of airborne droplets from one person to another. 

It should be noted that although there are many different types of face masks with contrasting health and safety qualities, many researchers and experts say that wearing any face mask that covers your nose and mouth is better than none at all. 

Furthermore, in an effort to flatten the curve, it is important to have some form of PPE on.

As long as you’re wearing a thick, comfortable, breathable face mask and adhering to social distancing regulations, a simple makeshift fabric face mask will suffice. 

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