What is a dust mask?
A dust mask is designed to provide protection from airborne particles present in the air in either solid (dust) or liquid (sprays or mist) form. These particles get mixed up in the air and enter your body when you breathe and are capable of causing some serious damage to your health, in particular your lungs.
‘Dust mask’ is the catch all term for any kind of mask used to protect you from particles, whilst a ‘Respirator Dust Mask’ is the type of mask with NIOSH rated filters, called particulate filters, that fits over your mouth and nose forming a seal to prevent any particles getting in.
If you do any kind of work that involves breathing in airborne particles, and I include woodworking, metalworking, agriculture, handling chemicals, working with resins or anything to do with your woodshop or remodelling, you’re always in the market for a really efficient, comfortable and reliable dust mask or respirator.
When you’re researching which dust mask to get you’ll need to know about mask types.
Mask types are broken down into ‘Disposable face mask’ and ‘Reusable face masks’ which we’ll cover later on.
I never really thought about liquids as being particles floating about in the air, but I last did science a long time ago.
In fact every airborne particle has the potential to do you harm, because if it’s small enough you can breathe it in. That’s why we need to be doubly careful both at work, and if we’re doing work at home.
Just think of the times you’ve been doing some remodelling at home and breaking up that old drywall, or using an electric sander?
I know I’ve done so much of that stuff.
The dust that’s generated can be very harmful to your lungs and we all need to be really careful: COPD or Clinical Obstructive Pulmonary Disease isn’t something that happens right after doing some sanding or remodelling, it kind of creeps up on you over time.
But Hey, it’s not all doom and gloom because wearing a dust mask, with or without a respirator, will help prevent you getting lung disease.
But when it comes to efficiency, safety and whether your new mask is actually going to protect you from the particles you come into contact with, this article will help you make an informed choice before buying.
Ratings explainer short intro
The mask rating system in the US is pretty straightforward, with a lot of guidance from NIOSH, the agency responsible for the country’s health protection.
All the masks that NIOSH rated, and you really want to be purchasing an officially rated mask, have the following marks on to help you identify the correct dust mask.
We’ve added a handy NIOSH illustration of the marks below:
*The mask above is N95 rated but the labeling layout is the same for all NIOSH approved masks*
The CDC (Centre for Disease Control) website also have a really handy list of NIOSH approved face masks that you can access by clicking here
The face mask ratings that matter for this article and specifically for dust and other airborne particles, including oil based particles are:
- N95: Filters at least 95% of airborne particles – not resistant to oil
- N99: Filters at least 99% of airborne particles – not resistant to oil
- N100: Filters at least 99.7% of airborne particles – not resistant to oil
- P100: Filters at least 99.7% of airborne particles – strongly resistant to oil
This can be a little confusing because there can be disposable dust masks, designed to throw away after a limited number of uses that are rated alongside reusable dust masks, where you just have to change the filter.
It’s just what suits both your budget and the levels of comfort you need.
Just bear in mind that for woodshop and remodelling type activity we recommend a reusable respirator dust mask, there are some really affordable dust masks on the market now and we make some recommendations at the end of the article.
Choosing a dust mask with the correct rating
In the last two years the dust mask market has exploded with a multitude of different styles, makes and ratings flooding the market. Seemingly available from every retailer out there, the choice has been really difficult.
Your choice has been made even trickier because you never really know if what you’re buying is the correct type.
The list of attributes is endless and includes: respirators, valves, what rating? and many different types of filters and construction materials and that’s before you get into the realms of spurious claims about protecting you from everything including alien invasions.
It’s no wonder major online businesses like Facebook, Instagram and Google have banned all advertising for Face Masks in an effort to protect their customers from the worst of these claims. Restrictions are being slowly removed but buying without a little guidance can be a problem if you’re not careful.
We’ll begin by going through the various mask types which are all to do with the amount of protection you’re going to get from various particle types, firstly though we’re going to talk about ‘Filters’.
Filters otherwise known as Particulate Filters, are really the engine of your mask, and they come in many shapes, sizes and ratings. Again it can be a little confusing because a disposable mask is really just one big filter, whilst a reusable mask is usually a face fitting shell with filters you can change, both types do the job but it’s the rating that’s important.
Particulate filters are rated by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, known as NIOSH, known as NIOSH, according to what, and how much, they filter out. The rating has both a letter and number:
N: Not oil-proof
R: Oil resistant (up to 8 hours)
P: Oil-proof (beyond 8 hours)
Number: Particulate filters are rated 95, 97 or 100, which corresponds to the percentage of one-micrometer particles removed during clinical trials (what goes in your lungs). A 95 rating means that the filter removes 95% of particles from the air. Filters rated 100 are considered High-Efficiency (HE or HEPA) filters.
Which dust mask is right for you?
Depending on the environment you’re working in you’ll have to research the type of risk present to ascertain the correct dust mask. Whilst none of us are fans of risk assessments they are an essential element of protecting yourself, your family, your co-workers, customers and the wider environment.
You’ll also have to consider comfort and reliability. These are the two attributes you can’t really do anything about until you try some on.
Choose a mask that fits comfortably over your nose and mouth, make sure it has a good NIOSH rating, and buy from somewhere that gives customer ratings and reviews.
The right fit
To know which type of dust mask is the right fit you’ll need to know about the different types of masks available.
Let’s take a look at the three most common types of mask below:
Respirators, a generic term for a face mask that fits closely over the nose and mouth enabling you to breathe through a filter, and often with a valve to help breathing, are specifically designed to provide protection from harmful dust, fumes, gases and liquid particles.
Respirators can be classified into two further types, disposable and reusable.
Disposable respirator masks
Disposable respirator dust masks are the White 3M style mask with a valve that you’re meant to throw away after a single session use, just think a day in the woodshop to gauge your potential usage.
These masks can work out pretty expensive if you’re not careful.
Reusable Respirator Dust Masks
There are plenty of old style respirator masks with big filter pods on either side of your face and a cumbersome head harness, but we’re big fans of the more modern, lightweight silicon free models like the Stealth N100 respirator dust mask, but more on that below.
The Stealth Mask N100, pictured above, also available as a P100 (you just have to change the filter) is a typical, modern reusable, respirator dust mask.
It’s light for all day use, has really comfortable head straps and a filtered breathing valve.
Reusable respirator dust masks (masks with replaceable filters) bear the word ‘NIOSH’ and are printed with either N95, N99, N100, R95, R99, R100, P95, P99, P3 or P100. This helps in determining the level of protection they offer as N means not oil resistant, R means oil resistant, and P refers to oil proof. The number 95 denotes that the respirator will filter 95% of the particles present in the air. It can get confusing here because P3, the rating most used in the UK, means the mask filter stops particles as small as 0.3 of a micron which equates to filtering 99.99% of all particles.
Importantly, and particularly for a reusable respirator dust mask, the fit of the mask is all important. These masks will have a soft rubber or silicone surround to the fitted part of the mask that should fit over your nose and mouth with no gaps.
Non-respirator disposable face masks
These are the masks we usually associate with hospitals and dentists, but they can also be used for woodshop and remodelling work.
Our view is that they are not ideal as they probably don’t have an N rating so are really only useful for going to the store and similar types of activity.
Best dust masks for woodworking and woodshop
Good ventilation and a robust dust extraction system are the ideal solution, together with the correct mask, to keep yourself safe when you’re in the woodshop.
The kind of particles you’re going to be coming up against are likely to be sawdust, paint fumes (droplets) and maybe some metal filings.
We’d recommend an N100 rated respirator dust mask for any woodshop or woodworking work unless you’re using oil based paint, in which case you should definitely go with a P100 filter.
They’re comfortable, economical to run and have a high N rating.
Best dust masks for remodelling
The kind of particles you’ll be coming up against are likely to be from dry walling, sawdust and paint fumes and maybe some Asbestos if you’re remodelling an old property.
Again, we’d recommend an N100 rated dust respirator mask for any woodshop work unless you’re using oil based paint, in which case you should definitely go with a P100 filter.
We’d recommend an N100 rated respirator dust mask for any woodshop work unless you’re using oil based paint, in which case you should definitely go with a P100 filter.
They’re comfortable, economical to run and have a high N rating.
For us there are always two big decisions to make:
- Do you want a disposable mask or a reusable mask?
- Do you want a breathing valve?
The disposable v reusable mask is fairly simple: if you’re going to be working and wearing a dust mask regularly the cost of disposable masks is going to be prohibitive because you’re supposed to change them everyday, whereas with a reusable mask, you only have to change filters once a month, plus if you need to do any oil based work you only need to swop out the filters, rather than buy a new mask.
And it’s pretty much the same for a breathing valve: if you’re going to be working for extended periods of time a breathing valve is going to be essential.
As you can see below we’ve only recommended respirator masks because non-respirator dust masks are generally not rated as highly by NIOSH, and simple disposable non-respirator masks aren’t really made for heavy dust usage.
Disposable Respirator Mask
There’s really only one option if you want to go down the disposable respirator route, and that’s 3M, and in particular the ‘Aura’ range. If you want to check it out a little more you can click here to see the fitting instructions*, but, and it’s a big but, they’re pretty expensive at around $10/$12 each. If you’re working 2 or 3 days a week and using one mask a day, wow, that’s over $100 a month.
*these are the UK fitting instructions because the US site was down when we wrote the article
Reusable Respirator Mask
We think there’s only one option here, and that’s the Stealth N100 Dust Mask, it’s light, really comfortable, very economical with N100 filter costs of only $14.99 a pair it’s the most economical.
We’ve worn this mask a lot and the silicon free face seal is really comfortable without letting any dust or other particles get inside the mask. What’s also great is that you can get P100 filters that fit in the same mask, so if you have to do any work around oil based products it’s a simple case of swopping out the filters. Filters last a full month so it’s also the most economical mask you can get.
The big takeaway from our research is that you should purchase a dust mask with the highest N rating and the most comfortable fit, this will enable you to be able to work longer and in more comfort.