Before the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, you may not have heard of N95 respirators or thought about how they differ from everyday face coverings or medical masks. But there are some important differences.
A simple way to think about them
Face coverings and medical masks are for helping protect those around you as you talk, cough or sneeze.
Respirators – when worn properly – are designed help protect you while you breathe in.
Different recommendations for different users during COVID-19
Non-medical face coverings (or masks) are currently recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (U.S. CDC) for the general public during everyday use, in addition to physical distancing and handwashing. These masks are convenient for wearing in everyday situations like grocery shopping, taking a socially distanced walk with your friends or talking to your neighbors. Cloth face masks may help block large particle droplets exhaled by you from reaching others when you speak, cough, or sneeze.
Medical masks are used by health care workers as a barrier to help protect them from high- velocity streams of liquids, such as blood, that they may be exposed to during certain medical procedures. Medical masks can also help capture some particles and droplets expelled by the wearer, such as those that may contain viruses and bacteria.
When used correctly, N95 respirators can filter at least 95% of non-oily airborne particles, including those that may contain viruses and bacteria. Because of these protective capabilities, N95 respirators play a crucial role for health care workers, first responders and certain other essential workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The U.S. CDC does not currently recommend that the general public purchase medical masks or respirators, as they say these critical supplies should be reserved for health care workers and other essential workers.
3M Company - The differences between masks and respirators