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The Difference Between Surgical Mask and N95

With the entrance of PPE in the public’s everyday vocabulary, it is important to note differences in masks and respirators. N95 respirators and surgical masks are examples of personal protective equipment that are used to protect the wearer from airborne particles and from liquid contaminating the face. Since the pandemic, it’s a question that has grown in popularity with good reason: What is the difference between a surgical mask and a N95 respirator?

While both may be referred to as “masks,” these two protective devices are actually used for different functions. From how they fit the user’s face to the intended uses, surgical masks and N95 respirators are very different kinds of masks. Below is a breakdown of what separates surgical masks from N95s and the levels of protection that they provide.

Surgical 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. By design, a surgical mask is intended to prevent physical liquids such as splashes or sprays from blood or sputum from entering the environment. A surgical mask may be effective in blocking splashes and large-particle droplets, but it does not provide complete protection from germs and other contaminants because of the loose fit between the surface of the mask and your face.

Surgical masks are designed to cover the mouth and nose loosely and are not sized for individual fit. One of the major differences between a surgical mask and a N95 filtering face piece respirator is that surgical masks are not intended to provide respiratory protection to the wearer since they do not effectively filter smaller airborne particles.

It should be noted that surgical masks are not to be confused with cloth face coverings. Cloth face coverings have increased in popularity as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and have been advised by the CDC for general public use. However, cloth face coverings are not the same as surgical masks. Cloth face coverings do not provide the same type of protection.

N95 Respirators

An N95 respirator is a respiratory protective device designed to achieve a very close facial fit and very efficient filtration of airborne particles. Note that the edges of the respirator are designed to form a seal around the nose and mouth.

N95 respirators are respiratory protective devices designed to provide efficient filtration of airborne particles. This is due in part to the very close facial fit they provide. N95s are designed to seal to a wearer’s face in order to achieve the intended effectiveness of filtering 95 percent of particles with a mass median diameter of 0.3 micrometers.

A properly fit tested N95 respirator will greatly reduce the number of small particles that will enter the wearer’s respiratory system, as compared to a surgical mask that is not NIOSH approved. The extent of that reduction is a function of the fit of the mask, its filtration efficiency level (with respirators available from 95 percent to 99.97 percent filter efficiency), the size of the hazardous particles and the wearer’s proper donning and wearing of the respirator. While N95s can reduce a wearer’s exposure to hazardous particles, they cannot guarantee that the wearer will not be exposed.

N95 respirators are considered similar to other respirators regulated under non-U.S. jurisdictions, but slightly different criteria are used to certify their performance, such as the filter efficiency, test agent and flow rate, and permissible pressure drop. For example, FFP2 respirators of the European Union are required to meet at least 94% filtration, and KN95 respirators of China are expected to meet at least 95% filtration. Their performance and protection are basically no different.


Identifying the differences between N95s and surgical masks can be difficult, but once you understand the fundamental features of each, it becomes clear when each should be used.

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