Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, more people have become aware to face masks and how they can prevent diseases. However, there’s still a lot of misinformation about them, including clarification between the N95 mask and the surgical mask.

This post will help you learn the difference between the surgical mask and the N95 respirator. From what they are to what they’re used for, we hope the information in this post can make things a little easier to understand.

What is the Surgical Mask?

This is a face covering used by health professionals. The most notable usage for these professionals comes from its name. A doctor will wear this mask when they are performing surgery on a patient. This helps to prevent contaminating equipment, and the patient themselves. When performing surgery, it’s important to have sterile equipment and a sterile environment, and the surgical mask is one tool out of many to help with that.

These masks are used by other medical professions as well. It may be referred to as a medical medical face mask, or it may be named after whatever profession the wearer has.

Who Uses It?

As we mentioned, this is mainly used in the medical field, dentistry, or similar fields. However, surgical masks are also used by the general public as well. In East Asian countries like Japan, they are worn as a method of health and even as a fashion statement. With the COVID-19 pandemic, their usage grew due to that. However, they are only approved for medical use, and may not be perfect at preventing the spread of disease.


The concept of using a mask to prevent the spread of disease isn’t a new idea. From plague doctors to the early face mask used in industrial times, there has always been a way to protect yourself. However, the modern usage of the surgical mask is fairly recent, with Johann Mikulicz popularizing it. This mask involved some string and gauze.

In fact, it wasn’t until the 1930s when most medical staff were wearing masks. Pandemics did help the spread of this, with history following similar beats as 2020. For example, during the 1918 flu pandemic,

there were mandatory mask laws, and many people didn’t believe it would work despite evidence to its effectiveness.

With all that said, the modern, disposable mask you know today came around in the 1960s. This mask used synthetic fabrics and was designed to be disposable. This is when the idea of having disposable surgical equipment became popular in order to improve sterilization.

This isn’t to say that the reusable cotton mask isn’t good, either. As long as you wash the mask and follow instructions, it can be effective as well. There are many studies that offer conflicting information as to which is better: a surgical mask or a reusable mask that’s properly washed.

How it Works

The surgical mask consists of one darker-colored side and one white side. In order to use the face mask, the darker side needs to be away from your face while the white side touches your face.

The darker side is constructed from materials that repel any fluids or large particles. When a doctor is dealing with a patient, the mask can prevent a patient’s spittle from getting inside the doctor’s nose or mouth. This side does not prevent smaller particles from getting in.

Meanwhile, the white side of the mask absorbs liquids that come from the nose or mouth of the doctor, preventing them from decontaminating the patient, too. When wearing the mask, always make sure that it’s worn correctly, or else it may not work as well.

N95- What is an N95 Respirator?

The N95 mask or respirator gets its name from the NIOSH, or the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. NIOSH assigns an efficiency rating, with the N95 being 95 percent efficient at filtering airborne particles. There are similar masks with a number that indicates how efficient the respirator is. For example, the N99 filters at least 99 percent of the particles in the air.

Who Uses It?

This respirator is used by two main fields. First, the industrial field. If you’re painting, mining, or in construction, dangerous particles are hitting your nose and mouth all day. These can have serious effects on your health, and an N95 mask allows you to breathe safely when practiced alongside other precautionary measures.

For those who work in an industry, the N95 mask is not recommended if there are oil particles in the air, as that is a weakness of the mask. Also, they do not work for firefighters or for other areas that lack oxygen.

These masks are commonly used in healthcare. The N95 mask tends to come in the form of a surgical respirator. They share similarities with surgical masks. Later on, we will discuss the differences between the respirator and the mask.

How it Works

The N95 mask is a respirator, which uses a filter to eliminate small and bigger particles whenever the wearer breathes. When a doctor has an N95 mask on, they can be around patients with a reduced risk of contracting COVID-19 or other viruses.

The N95 mask is designed to form a seal around the wearer’s nose and mouth. Because of this, the mask needs to fit on the wearer. If it’s too loose or tight, it may not be as effective.

We should mention that when the wearer exhales, the filter doesn’t filter that out. Because of this, asymptomatic people will not benefit from wearing the N95 mask.

Because the material can break down, these masks are not known to be reusable, though research is being done to create a reusable mask.


Respirator masks are nothing new, with plenty of predecessors to the modern N95 mask. One example were the World War I gas masks. Besides being used for the war, they were also used by miners and similar professions. These masks had some challenges, however. They were bulky and they were uncomfortable to wear.

The modern single-use respirator was approved in the 1970s by the NIOSH and the Bureau of Mines. As you can infer from the title, these masks were originally meant for the industrial world. The healthcare N95 mask was invented by Peter Tsai, a University of Tennessee professor. He patented it in 1995, and he still works to this day, being involved in the COVID-19 pandemic.

So, as you can see, the modern N95 healthcare mask isn’t that old, with its modern incarnation coming out during the dawn of the 21stcentury.

How Are The Surgical Mask and the N95 Respirator Similar?

These masks are a bit similar. They both are tested for their efficiency. You can’t make either of these at home and sell them legally. They are tested for how well they can filter, how flammable they are, and other factors. These masks are also meant for one-time use. You should not wash or share these, and once you’re done with them, they should be disposed of.

Both also require you to avoid touching them when you’re using them. Should you touch, you should follow that with washing or sanitizing your hands until they are clean. The same applies when you remove the mask. Dispose of the masks properly when you are finished.

What Are the Differences?

The differences between an N95 respirator and a surgical mask can be a little confusing. As we mentioned, there are many similarities, but there are also many differences as well. Let’s look at some of them.


Both are similar in design, in that they are devices you put over your face, usually held up with ear loops. However, the surgical mask always has a darker side, which is located on the front, and a lighter side on the back. Meanwhile, the respirator is bowl-shaped with a breathing apparatus on the front of it.

Their Purpose

First, the purpose of these can help people know the difference. The goal of a surgical mask is to act as a barrier between droplets, splashes, spit, and other liquids that can contaminate. Meanwhile, a respirator protects the wearer from airborne particles that can be harmful or potentially spread disease.

Who Evaluates Them?

Both the N95 respirator and the surgical mask go through strict evaluations, but they are done a little differently.

The N95 mask is evaluated through the NIOSH, or National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety. This is to ensure that the performance and filter efficiency is up to task. When you buy a respirator that’s approved, it should have text mentioning NIOSH, the N95 approval, and who manufactured it.

A surgical mask is approved by the FDA in the USA. A manufacturer must give data to the FDA, and the FDA will approve masks that have data that matches other masks that have had previous approval.

How Do They Fit?

When you put on a respirator, it will feel tight. That is because it’s designed to seal tightly against your face so that no vapors can make their way past your face. When wearing a respirator, it’s important you buy the right size. Meanwhile, a surgical mask will not be as tight.

How They Filter

An N95 respirator is designed to filter 95 percent of particles. Meanwhile, a surgical mask is not good against smaller particles, but instead, they are good for larger particles and splashes.

Disposal Rules

Both the mask and the respirator are similar in that they are not reusable. For a respirator, they tend to be single use. You discard it if it becomes damaged, or it’s no longer sealing on your face. Should it become wet or be contaminated with other fluids, it should be disposed of.

The surgical mask is similar in many respects, and it should be used once per patient. For a mask, however, it is important you follow the manufacturer’s instructions on disposal.

As you can see, both the N95 respirator and the surgical mask have differences that make them ideal for certain uses.

Surgical Masks During COVID-19

The FDA has not approved surgical masks during COVID-19, but they may have some effectiveness towards stopping the spread of the virus. They offer similar protection to a homemade face mask, where an asymptomatic person who wears it may be able to stop the spread because the mask catches their droplets.

N95 During COVID-19

These respirators are highly effective in the war of transmitting the coronavirus disease. In fact, they are a little too effective, as they lead to shortages. People who worked in medical fields had a harder time getting enough of them.

Because of this, it’s highly recommended that those who work in the medical industry should only wear them, and they are not recommended for public use. Not only that, but the general public may not be able to use them very well because of their guidelines.

Not to mention, while these masks are extremely effective in helping doctors not catch the virus from patients, they are not too helpful in catching exhaling particles. An asymptomatic person who wants to be in public and not spread the virus should not wear them.

For the public, reusable face masks are the best bet to prevent the spread of COVID-19, as long as proper guidelines are followed.


The N95 respirator and the surgical mask are two valuable tools used by the medical industry, but they are a little different. The N95 respirator is used to filter air particles that the wearer breathes, and can be used in the industrial side of work. Meanwhile, a surgical mask is designed to repel and absorb liquids and large particles, helping keep things sterile during surgery and possibly slowing the spread of COVID-19.

We hope this article helped you figure out the differences. If you’re in the public, buying a reusable face mask and keeping it washed regularly is your best way to stop the spread of COVID-19. Some masks, especially N95 respirators, should be left to the professionals.