Gas masks, face masks, and respirators. We've seen a lot of one kind in real life, others perhaps in workshops or on television or in the movies. Some of us may use and encounter these on a daily, however, most civilians might find them easy to mix up and confuse. So, to help clarify and make it easier to understand the differences, let's go through what each one does and what it is meant for.

Gas Masks

First, gas masks are also known to be air-purifying respirators, which may lead to some confusion as to what they do. They're known as such due to the fact they filter or clean chemical gasses and, depending on the gas mask, possibly the particles themselves out of the air as you breathe. Gas masks commonly have two parts: a facepiece or mask, and a filter or cartridge (if the filter is in a metal shell, it is called a canister). Gas masks strap the facepiece securely to the head, while the cartridge most often has a filter that removes particles, or charcoal, may contain both or have other materials that filter out particles. When a gas mask user inhales, the air is pulled through the filter.

Gas masks are used for exposure to highly toxic fumes and chemicals, including biological weapons.

Face Masks

Face masks are a much simpler, but just useful material barrier that prevents respiratory droplets from reaching others. Medical grade face masks not only prevent the spread of respiratory droplets from doctor to patient, for example but protect the doctor from fluids and airborne viruses as well. Face masks due to COVID-19 have become a recognized daily occurrence. Face masks can be surgical disposable masks, masks made of breathable cotton but with layers of fabric or a filter, or tightly woven fabric, and hand-made cloth masks with an inner pocket for a filter.


A respirator is a tighter fitting mask that creates what is called a facial seal. The most common type of respirator with a facial seal can be seen in N95 masks for example. Most N95 masks are shaped to fit snugly above the nose, around the cheeks, the jaw, and the chin to create a seal. They often feature a metal nose piece, two straps for around the ears, and a safety designation with a NIOSH approval printed upon them. They are largely used by health care professions and workers that are often exposed to airborne pathogens during employment like law enforcement, firefighters, paramedics, emergency response teams, and so on. Respirators come in disposable or reusable as well as half-face or full face.

Each of these items is useful in filtering out different levels of harmful particles in the air. Cloth and disposable surgeons are best used for respiratory droplets while gas masks and respirators are for heavy-duty chemical, biohazard, and other more extreme means of protection.

TDM Developer