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Dust Mask or Respirator: What's the Difference?


There are two different types of masks you can use to protect your lungs – the dust mask and the respirator. If you are doing painting, woodworking, grinding, gardening, or any kind of remodeling that will expose you to airborne particles, you should wear one of these masks.

Firefighters and miners are well aware of the airborne dangers for their lungs and usually receive special training about using different types of breathing masks.

But this hub is about the masks the rest of us need to protect our lungs. In this hub I'll talk about the importance of wearing these masks and the differences between the two types of masks so you can choose the right one for the job.

Man in dust mask

Man in dust mask



Why You Should Care – Protecting Your Lungs

You only have one set of lungs.  When you breathe, you're sucking oxygen into your lungs.  The oxygen is then absorbed into your bloodstream.  From there it goes to every cell in your body. 

If the air you breathe has dust or other impurities in it, you inhale them into your lungs.  If there are more impurities than your lungs can handle, you're going to get less oxygen into your bloodstream.  At a minimum this is going to affect your ability to do work.  From there, contaminants in your lungs could cause irritation, pain, or even long-term damage and lung disease.

Have I made my point?  You need to protect your lungs when working in areas where there are contaminants in the air.  And the primary way to do that is with a mask.


What's the Difference?

 A dust mask will provide you protection against non-toxic dust and pollen. This will help when you are doing heavy duty cleaning around the house or working in your yard when there's a lot of pollen in the air.

A respirator provides protection against fumes, gases, vapors, and other harmful particles in the air.  This can help when you are cutting wood, sanding, painting, demolishing walls, or blowing leaves and other debris in your yard.

Basic dust mask

Basic dust mask

Dust Mask

A dust mask is a loose-fitting mask that fits over your nose and mouth. When you breathe in air, it is pulled through the dust mask. Dust is then captured on the outside of the mask.

The dust mask will typically have a single strap that goes around your head. Some will have a strip of bendable aluminum on the outside across the bridge of the nose. By bending the aluminum you can get a better fit. But dust masks typically don't form a complete seal around the user's face.

Dust Mask Precautions


Dust masks must fit properly. If they are not worn properly, there will be leaks which makes the mask less useful.

Beards can present a problem because they prevent a tight fit on the face. Mustaches may be OK, depending on their size.

If a dust mask if ripped or damaged, don't try to fix it. Just throw it away and use another one.


A respirator is a mask made to protect your lungs not only against dust and pollen but chemicals and fumes as well.

There are disposable respirators and two types of air purifying respirators – non-powered and powered, also called mechanical.

Disposable respirators

These look like dust masks but have some additional features. First, they will have two straps to go around the head. They typically also have both a metal nose clip and soft foam around the top. These features make for a more secure seal to the face.

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These often have an N95 rating on them. The "N" stands for Not Resistant to Oil. The "95" refers to the fact that according to National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) standards, the mask will filter out at least 95% of airborne particles. Disposable respirators are also available in N99 and N100 ratings if you want to filer out a higher percentage of airborne particles.

Breathing through an N95 mask for long periods of time may be more uncomfortable than with other types of respirators.

For more detail, see my other hub Surgical Mask or N95 Mask - What's the Difference?  

Cartridge Color Contaminant 


Acid gases 


Organic vapors 


Ammonia gas 


Cabon Monoxide


Acid gases and oranic vapors


Any pariculates free of oil (N95, N99, N100)

Air Purifying Respirators

Air purifying masks have a facepiece and filter.

  • The half mask air purifying respirator has a rubber face seal that fits over the nose and under the chin.
  • The full facepiece version covers the entire face, including mouth, chin, nose, and eyes.

These respirators have either one or two cartridges. The cartridges purify the air as you breathe.

The type of cartridge you use will determine the type of contaminants that will be filtered out. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has created color coding for respirator cartridges.

Powered or mechanical air purifying respirators are based on using a powered fan that pushes the incoming air through one or more filters before you breathe it in. The fan and filter may be part of the unit or may be separately attached to the users back or belt.

Respirator considerations

As with dust masks, respirator masks must fit properly. You want to be sure you have a good seal all around the edges of the mask.

Respirators are more expensive than dust masks. And powered respirator masks are typically more expensive than non-powered, which are more expensive than disposable ones.


Remember, your lungs are your link to life-supporting oxygen.  Make sure you protect them with a dust mask or respirator when you're going to be working in an environment where there's a lot of dust, paint, sawdust, or other contaminants in the air. 

NOTE: This hub is for informational purposes only.  It is not intended to be medical advice or a comprehensive review of all OSHA respiratory requirements.

Fun With Dusk Masks!

Since dust masks are relatively inexpensive they can provide a cheap form of entertainment. Called pinging, one person stretches out a dust mask away from the face of the person wearing it. Then the person lets it go so it smashes into the face of the person wearing the mask. And with some bad luck maybe they'll lose an eye, get a bloody nose, broken tooth, etc. Great fun!

Enjoy the Dusk Mask Pinging video!

Write a Comment

Billsnotes (author) on May 28, 2010:

Thanks for your comment and citing 18001, a standard of choice for company safety management system.

Kumar on May 28, 2010:

Very good details related to protection during painting application and it is useful for OHSAS 18001 implementation in a company

Billsnotes (author) on February 21, 2010:

I don't usually let commercial comments through, but above link is to a product that might be of interest if you're looking for protection that covers both head and nose.

Joe on February 21, 2010:

A new product that is stretch polypropylene latex free now available for head and face protection all in one here:

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