What are the differences between respirator masks and surgical-style masks?

January 19, 2022

A well-fitting mask is essential to help prevent COVID-19 infection by the highly transmissible omicron variant. Any mask should completely cover the nose and mouth and fit snugly against the side of the face, with no gaps.

Respirators, such as N95 or KN95, offer a higher level of protection through better air filtration. However, the respirators must be sealed to the face to work properly. If choosing to wear a respirator, ensure it fits correctly, as shown on this fact sheet.

Surgical-style, blue procedure masks feature a nose wire that prevents air leaks from the top of the mask. The mask’s layers will help prevent respiratory droplets from getting inside the mask or escaping.

In addition, you can knot a surgical-style mask for a better fit. See this short video on how to do it.

N95 respirators meet CDC guidelines. This CDC infographic shows the labeling that’s required for all N95 filtering respirators. And the CDC offers tips on how to tell if an N95 respirator is approved.

Other respirator-style options — KN95, which resemble N95s but have ear loops, or KF94, a high-quality mask that folds flat — are designed and tested according to international standards. However, be aware that up to 60% of KN95 respirators evaluated by the CDC have been found to be counterfeit. A KN95 respirator should have a stamp with text that includes the name of the manufacturer and model. Packaging for a legitimate KF94 should say “Made in Korea” and include product name and manufacturer. See this roundup from the New York Times on how to find a quality mask.

See also: Tips on getting the best protection from your N95