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Guide to disposable face masks

While different types and designs of disposable face masks may look strikingly similar in their appearances, there are often some notable differences in their intended use, wear time and the quality of protection offered. Some surgical masks that appear similar to respirators may have not been designed to help protect the wearer from airborne hazards, therefore aren't considered an appropriate substitute to government-approved respirator masks.

If you are required to wear a protective disposable face mask at work for any reason, it's important that you know the differences between FFP respirators and surgical masks to identify the best disposable face masks for your job.

Surgical Masks

The purpose of surgical masks is to prevent biological particles from being expelled by the wearer into the environment around them. Surgical masks are also typically designed to be fluid resistant - limiting the expulsion of fluids, droplets and particles when breathing, speaking, sneezing or coughing - and aren't necessarily designed for efficient filtration.

These masks don't generally seal tightly around the face, leaving the potential for air leakage around the edges. They do not protect the wearer from fluids, droplets or particles expelled by others, which is why surgical masks must be worn by all individuals in high-risk environments (surgeries, dental clinics, etc) wherever possible.

There are three main types of surgical face masks, each offering varying levels of protection:

Type 1 surgical face masks

Type 1 face masks are used to help reduce the risk of the spread of infections via the droplet route and are not generally resistant to fluids. These face masks were used frequently by the general public during the COVID-19 pandemic - if you spot a box of disposable face masks at the entrance of your local GP surgery and are asked to wear one, they are likely type 1 surgical face masks.

Type 2 surgical face masks

Type 2 surgical face masks are principally intended for use by healthcare professionals in an operating room or in other medical settings with similar requirements but are not resistant to fluids.

FFP respirators

Disposable filtering facepiece particulate (FFP) respirators are designed to help reduce the wearer's exposure to airborne particles. These masks are designed to offer high levels of particle filtration and seal tightly around the wearer's face, reducing the potential for air leakage. Various designs of respirators are available, all offering different levels of air filtration and seal around the face.

Differences between disposable surgical face masks and disposable FFP respirators

Disposable FFP respirators

  • Designed to help protect the wearer from exposure to airborne particles
  • Seal tightly to the wearer's face
  • Different classes offer different levels of protection
  • Some respirators are certified as both respirators and surgical masks
  • Require face fit testing
  • Classed as personal protective equipment (PPE)

Disposable surgical masks

  • Designed to help protect the sterile environment from wearer-generated particles
  • Generally less tight on the wearer's face, leaving risk of air leakage
  • Some types may offer fluid resistance to liquid splash (check individual brand)
  • Not strictly classed as PPE as defined in PPE regulations

Proper use of face masks

To keep yourself and others safe, it's important to familiarise yourself with the best practices for wearing FFPs and disposable surgical face masks. The most important advice for proper face mask use includes:

  • You should always wash your hands before donning any form of protective face mask and should avoid touching your face while wearing it.
  • If your surgical face mask becomes wet, you should immediately dispose of the mask in a hygienic way and replace it immediately.
  • All masks are only effective when worn correctly, undamaged and kept clean.
  • Surgical masks and disposable FFP masks are non-reusable.
  • FFP respirators only create a face seal when the wearer is clean-shaven.
  • FFP masks must be Face Fit tested by certified personnel to be sure that they are fit correctly and must be fit-checked by the wearer upon each use.

How to dispose of used face masks

  • Once you are ready to dispose of your face mask, you should remove the mask from the straps and not from the facepiece
  • Your mask should be discarded in a closed bin
  • Never handle someone else's mask
  • You should NOT re-use a disposable face mask, especially in a formal healthcare setting
  • Make sure that you wash your hands immediately after disposing of your face mask

Disposable face masks with Protec Direct

Protec Direct are proud to offer a wide range of disposable face masks, suited to many different environments from healthcare, construction and general protective use.

Browse the full disposable face mask range now and secure the right masks to protect yourself and your employees, whether you require FFP1, FFP2 or FFP3 respirators.