Best Face Masks: Protect Yourself From Air Contaminants
Protect yourself from breathing polluted air with these face masks
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BY Norah Tarichia / LAST UPDATED ON October 12, 2019
The air is filled with all sorts of pollutants that are potentially harmful. It gets worse when your job requires you to deal with harmful pollutants, such as when you’re woodworking, metalworking, auto detailing, and performing other forms of mechanical work. Our buying guide will help you find the best face masks for safety and health in polluted workspaces.
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Benefits of Face Masks
- Safely perform potentially harmful tasks. You should wear personal protective equipment such as a respirator mask when you're removing mold, spray painting, or are in a smoke-filled environment. It also provides good respiratory protection if you expect to encounter a lot of toxic dust.
- Protect your eyes and face. The best respirator masks include a particulate filter, provide a tight seal, and keep harmful chemicals and vapors from damaging the sensitive areas on your face.
- Breathe better. Some people are more sensitive to air contaminants than others, but it's a good idea to wear a high-quality, reusable respirator when you know you're going to be exposed to potentially harmful elements in the air, such as wildfire smoke or earthquake rubble.
- Prevent illness. When you're exposed to dust, fumes, gases, or vapors, it can be potentially harmful to your health. The right particulate respirator will ensure that the wearer’s respiratory system is not adversely affected by these contaminants.
Types of Face Masks
Air-Purifying Respirators (APRs)
APRs remove contaminants such as dust, mist, and metal fumes by absorbing the gases and vapors through a cartridge or canister. These types of respirators fit snugly against your face and come in several types: mouth bit respirator, quarter-mask, half-face mask, and full-face mask. Full-face masks cover everything from above the eyes to below the chin. All of the products in our review are APRs.
Supplied-Air Respirators (SARs)
SARs use an air tank, air compressor, or air line to supply clean air to your body. These respirators have either tight or loose-fitting respiratory inlets. Half- or full-face respirators use tight-fitting inlets. Hoods or helmets that cover the head or neck and rubber or fabric side shields have loose-fitting inlets.
With its headquarters based in Saint Paul, Minnesota, 3M has been around since 1902. The company launched as Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company and initially focused on mining for a mineral to make sandpaper and grinding wheels. The company currently produces more than 60,000 different products. One of its top face masks is the 3M 7503 Half Facepiece Reusable Respirator.
American-based MSA has been around since 1914. The company develops, manufactures, and supplies a variety of safety products to protect people and infrastructures. Its products are used by the military, construction industry, and fire services. One top product is the MSA Advantage 200 Half Mask.
Honeywell, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, designs products related to many areas, including safety and security, energy efficiency, and clean energy. Its technologies are used in homes, cars, and manufacturing plants. One popular product is the Honeywell 5500 Series Half Face Mask Reusable Respirator.
Face Mask Pricing
- Under $30: The type of respirators in this price range can be used for a variety of tasks, including painting, sanding, welding, smelting, construction, abatement, and mining. They tend to be lightweight, made with silicone facepieces, and are usually easy to clean. Disposable respirators are cheaper than reusable ones.
- Over $30: At this price point, you will find high-end respirators that are much more durable than their less-expensive counterparts. They resist distortion and have minimal dead air space. They typically include contoured sealing flanges and advanced cradle suspension systems to provide optimal comfort.
The best respirator fits tightly and does not leak. This feature is largely dependent on the type of materials that are used in manufacturing. The facepiece can be constructed of several types of materials, depending on the brand and the type of mask. This includes silicone, neoprene, and natural rubber. The canister is typically made of styrene plastic, which is very durable.
Another important feature on a face mask is its durability. This is directly related to the type of material that is used to make the mask. If you want a reliable respirator, you need to look for a product that is long-lasting. Many high-end face masks contain silicon rubber, which provides a tight seal and is very dependable.
The better a respirator fits, the more comfortable it will be. It should be secure, and there should be no gap between your face and the seal. Keep in mind that while respirators are tested by the manufacturers, not every person has the same size head nor the same facial features. As a result, not all masks will fit you the same way. Therefore, look to see if the product is adjustable for a comfortable fit.
Consider why you are buying the face mask and what type of contaminants you need to ward against. Note the toxicity levels of these particular contaminants to make sure the half facepiece respirator or full-face respirator will stand up to them. Other things to take into consideration include length of exposure, contaminant concentration, and your sensitivity to the contaminant.
- Cartridge Ratings: The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) assigns ratings that are used on filter cartridges. For example, an N95 respirator filters at least 95 percent of all airborne particles but has no resistance to oil, while a P99 respirator filters at least 99 percent of airborne particles and is strongly resistant to oil. The letters AG mean a respirator is approved for acid gas filtration, while an OS respirator can be used for organic vapor filtration.
Best Face Mask Reviews & Recommendations 2020
- In addition to wearing a face mask, consider installing air filters in your garage or auto repair shop if the air inside is compromised with airborne contaminants. It will significantly reduce respiratory-related problems.
- Face masks may not be effective for people with facial hair. The hair prevents the mask from making a tight seal with the face, and dust particles may sneak into the cover.
- You should always travel with your face mask in case you find yourself in places with excessive pollution. Select a compact design that can fit in your bag or glove box.
Q: Can a face mask keep me safe from smoke fumes?
A: Only if it's designed to filter smoke, or carbon, particles. An ordinary face mask may not do much to protect you from inhaling smoke fumes. However, a respirator may help you breathe more comfortably and give you enough time to get to a safe place in case you are caught up in a fire.
Q: How often should I replace a face mask?
A: You should replace a dust mask every year or after about six months with frequent use. A respirator should be replaced every two years. Consider replacing it sooner if you notice reduced filter performance or if it’s no longer a snug fit.
Q: How do I know that a face mask is effective?
A: You can place both hands over the mask as you breathe in and out to test for any leaks. The mask should bulge out slightly when you exhale and collapse a little when you inhale. Also, look at the inner side of the mask. If you notice any dirt or dust particles, then the mask isn’t very effective.
Our pick for the best face mask is the 3M Large Half Facepiece Reusable Respirator. It's comfortable, makes a tight seal, and you don't have to rebreathe a lot of your own air because it has a low dead air space.
If you are looking for a cheaper face mask, consider the 3M Half Facepiece Reusable Respirator.