How to Choose a Respirator or Dust Mask

Various types of respirators and dust masks
Respirators and dust masks come in several styles and types.

Home and garden projects frequently involve exposure to harmful chemicals and toxins – such as paint fumes, solvents, dust, adhesives, pesticides, and caustic cleaning products – not to mention the annual assault from pollen and allergens. In addition to proper ventilation, a respirator or dust mask will go a long way in protecting your lungs and health.

Respirators and dust masks aren’t all the same – there are different kinds to choose from, as well as a rating system for efficiency. At home and around the workshop, either a particulate filter (dust mask) or chemical cartridge respirator are likely to be all you’ll need.

N95 and R95 particulate masks
N95 and R95 particulate masks.

Particulate Filters

Particulate filters, including disposable dust masks, are the most common type of air-purifying device for home use. Particulate filters can be disposable or reusable with replaceable filters. They cover your nose and mouth and provide protection from airborne particles – including dust, mists, liquids, and some fumes – but not gases or vapors.

Particulate filters are rated by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) according to what, and how much, they filter out. The rating have both a letter and number:

    Dust mask cutting grass
    Dust mask for cutting grass.

  • 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. 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.

What Type Particulate Filter Should I Buy?

The most common rating for disposable dust masks is N95, which will filter 95% of airborne particles that are not oil-based. N95 covers most woodshop dust, allergens, and airborne diseases. Filters for painting are often rated R95, or higher to handle oil-based particles.

If you’re looking for the highest level of protection in the widest variety of situations, go for P100, which will filter out 100% of both oil-based and non-oil-based particles.

When choosing a dust mask, consider:

  • Masks with an adjustable nosepiece offer a tighter fit.
  • Disposable masks with foam face seals will be more comfortable and a little more effective.
  • Masks with an exhalation valve will make breathing easier.
  • For highly toxic particles (such as asbestos), choose a non-disposable mask with sealing gaskets.
Half-mask, dual cartridge respirator
Half-mask, dual cartridge respirator.

Chemical Cartridge/Gas Mask Respirators

Chemical cartridge respirators contain special carbon filtering material that absorbs gases and vapors from the air. The replaceable cartridges are inserted in a mask that seals tightly around the edges to block out unfiltered air. Cartridge respirators may be half-mask (covering only your nose and mouth) or full-face (for protection against chemicals that irritate the skin).

Chemical cartridge filters include:

  • Chemical Cartridge: Block out vapors, but don’t have a separate prefilter to remove particles.
  • Dual Cartridge: Include a replaceable pre-filter for particulates, giving you both types of protection. The particulate pre-filter will be rated just like any other particulate filter (see above).
  • PAPR (Powered Air-Purifying Respirator): Have a battery-powered fan that blows air through the filter to make breathing easier.

What Type Chemical Cartridge Respirator Should I Buy?

To choose the right cartridge respirator, you need to know what toxins you’ll be facing. The cartridges are color-coded for specific purposes (such as organic vapors, ammonia, mercury, or acids). If you don’t know, or if your project it likely to contain small amounts of different substances, choose a dual-cartridge respirator with a multipurpose chemical cartridge and a P100-rated particulate filter.

Spraying insect spray
Wear a protective mask when spraying potentially harmful chemicals.

Guide to Respirators

The following chart will help you decide what kind of respirator you need:

Substance Type of Respirator Rating (if applicable)
Acid Gases Chemical cartridge  
Allergens Particulate filter N95 or higher
Ammonia Chemical cartridge  
Asbestos Particulate filter N100 or HE
Bacteria and Viruses Particulate filter N95 or higher
Bleach Particulate filter N95 or higher
Dust Particulate filter N95 or higher
Fibers (not asbestos) Particulate filter N95 or higher
Insulation Particulate filter N95 or higher
Lead Particulate filter N100 or HE
Mold Particulate filter N95 or higher
Organic vapor Chemical cartridge  
Paint Particulate filter R95 or higher
Pesticides, Sprays Particulate filter R95 or higher
Pollen Particulate filter N95 or higher
Sanding Particulate filter N95 or higher
Welding Particulate filter N95 or higher

Respirator Safety Tips

  • Notice Smells: Change the filter if you notice any changes in smells or taste; or if your throat, nose, or lungs become irritated.
  • Solvents, adhesives, paints, and pesticides
    Wear a protective mask when using chemicals.
  • Breathe Easy: You should also change your respirator if it becomes clogged and hard to breathe through.
  • Keep Dry: Many respirators, especially disposable ones, become ineffective if they get wet.
  • Follow Instructions: Replace filters as instructed on the package.
  • Don’t Reuse: Disposable respirators aren’t meant to be used more than once.
  • Throw Away if Broken: Discard any respirator or filter canister that is dirty or damaged. Replace gas masks if rubber seals are damaged.

Further Information

54 COMMENTS

  1. I bought a 3M R6297-M respirator(mold/lead mask) for working in my 250 square foot open dog run, my question is, are these cartridges appropriate for working in dusty conditions?, and if not, can I replace these existing cartridges with the appropriate ones?, using the same mask? Thanks

  2. I have an old mask for organic vapors left in my husbands dusty, dirty shop.
    Can it be washed and do I need new filters? I have no manual for it.

  3. I use a particulate respirator (dust mask) for my stone cutting job but I notice at the end of the day, my nostrils are full of dust. What is going wrong?

  4. Pablo Jimenez said: “I use a particulate respirator (dust mask) for my stone cutting job but I notice at the end of the day, my nostrils are full of dust. What is going wrong?”

    Pablo – what’s probably going wrong is that the dust mask isn’t sealing well enough around your face. They are meant for just the lightest protection – stone cutting makes horrible dust (I’ve cut ceramic, brick and mortar) and it’s going around the sides of the filter when you breath. No matter how much you shape the little metal piece to your nose it will leak. If you’re a stone cutter, you owe it to yourself to get a good quality respirator mask. They’re inexpensive and honestly, breathing in that dust really is damaging your lungs. You can get pneumonia and even emphesema from it seriously.

  5. Hello I got a job working at Rona and was wondering what the best mask would be to protect NY lungs from dust thank you

  6. I bought this mask from Lew’s. It smells like glue or chemical. The whole idea is not to breath stuff, but then you have to breath the glue like chemical odor. Returning it to Lowe’s.

  7. I use a lot of households sprays in my jobs, kitchen and bathroom, bleach. Widow shine etc, what kind of protection is best for me?

  8. I use household sprays for work, kitchen sprays and bathroom bleach, window cleaners etc. What kind of mask would be the best protection for me? Thanks

  9. Thank you for this info,a practical and easy quick reference guide. I was wondering also if there are parts that signify an air valve or not, or if it is FFP1, FFP2 and FFP3.
    Bruce

  10. Hello, I use Kaboom spray for tub and shower, also Lysol. Both of them are awfully smelly and make breathing hard for me as I am cleaning, while they do a great, unbelievable job. Could you please guide me of what type of mask I should use to eliminate those odors. Thank you!!

  11. Hello, I was wondering what would be the best type of respirator for automotive clear coat application? I will be doing a clear coat job on the entire body after all the prep work is completed.
    Thank you,

    Shawn

  12. what mask would be best for mosaic art? This involves hand cutting of stone, glass and ceramic, mixing of grout and thinset cement, plus occasional use of toxic glues. Mainly concerned with the powdery dust from grout and cement.

  13. I do a lot of polishing jewelry. Some polishes contain no oil based ingredients and some contain distillates. What kind of mask should I use. The lighter the better.

  14. I was hoping that you could direct me to one cartridge for half faced respirator that would protect me from both bleach smell, bleach is sprayed from had held spray pump (& not ventilated very good in work area) and from pesticides in same area
    Thank you in advance Jason

  15. In your table it says for “pesticides, sprays” to use a particulate filter. But some liquid pesticides are organic vapors and dangerous. Wouldn’t they require a dual cartridge respirator?

  16. Thank you for the good information. I need a respirator for very strong spray paint-new Rust-oleum brand and this helps me choose the right one. I almost killed my lungs by spraying without one. Paint is great; the smell and fine particles in the air are extremely strong.

  17. The picture shown depicts a man using a dust mask when using bug spray? The dust mask is useless for protection against these chemicals!

  18. Re “Wow Says” :
    The picture shown depicts a man using a dust mask when using bug spray? The dust mask is useless for protection against these chemicals!
    YESSS!! I noticed that. Who the heck is editing this page? That constitutes VERY dangerous (visual) advice.

    • Hi Amanda,
      The man in the photo is wearing an approved N95 mask. While that isn’t the best choice for spraying pesticides, I checked the Safety Data Sheet for the product he is using (Black Flag Ant and Roach Spray), and it says the following:

      EYE / FACE PROTECTION
      Personal protective equipment: None required
      Hand protection: None required
      Skin and body protection: None required
      Respiratory protection: None required

      You can find the entire Safety Data Sheet at http://www.homedepot.com/catalog/pdfImages/a3/a316b9b8-ef00-432e-aa80-37dc9890c279.pdf

  19. Hi, i’m a factory worker with a pharmaceautical company. We use the regular disposable nose masks, exactly like the ones nurses use but the sad thing is, our nostrils still get attacked by dusts. I plan to suggest a better and healthier nose mask to the management but don’t what type to suggest. Please help.

  20. Thanks for your saving life information. i want to go into soap making work. what type of mask would be suitable when using NaoH and others chemicals?

  21. I have an allergy to gasoline. Can’t pump my gas but I need to. What type of mask should I get? Have asthma, been in the hospital twice since inhaling these fumes. Help!!

  22. Hello
    I have question. I’m professional cleaner. Can u please tell me what kind of mask is the best to use in this kind of job ( to protect myself from chemical like domestos and other)?
    I m asking becouse I’m using chemical very often and now I feel this is not good for my health using chemicals without mask.

    Thank You
    Regards
    Monika

  23. I am a wood carver using power tool bits. They create a lot of saw dust and I would like to know the best mask for me. If is got into air brushing I would like to know the mask for this

  24. I am working for a very dusty environment. we sand old coaches and there is grinding and welding taking place at the same time. the floors are very dusty and we also do painting which most of times is done outside the painting booth. the dust is just too much. I would like to know what kind of dust musk can we use and the painting mask or respirators because the guys double the dust musk that we use they say they are too weak the dust slips through.

  25. Hi,

    I got employees working with paper shavings on the bailing machines and these are giving a lot of dust and small particles of paper. Which is the right mask or respirator we can use?

  26. Very thorough. But I have one question? Do I need an R95 mask for spray paint that is not oil-based, such as fabric paint? I don’t know about dyes.

  27. I need a respirator that will be good for ordinary dust, dust from tearing down sheet rock walls and ceilings, blown in insulation that contains rodent droppings, mold, and also for chemical odors from paints, cleaning solutions, and whatever else is used in a complete house remodel. I don’t have a whole lot of money to spend, $60 is about what I have. Any suggestions on respirators for me?

  28. In May I started a business. I work with wood. Sanding. Painting (water based)
    Stain and. Polyurethane. I already have respiratory problems working in my shop. Please what mask do I need. ?

  29. I just started my own Lawn Care Business. Every day I am breathing in dust as well as carbon monoxide from my machines. What mask do you recommend?

  30. Hi i make glass jewelry and sometimes metal. I cut glass and grind use a lap wheel, dremel, kilns, etc.
    What mask should i buy?

    Also i may be using the basement of an old house for a workshop. No idea if there is mold etc there.

  31. I’ve been a painter for 30 years and have always used a double cartridge respirator when doing any type of spraying,whether it be paint,pesticides, can spray paint and anything that might damage my respiratory system. Even if the product says no mask required, wear one anyway. Your lungs,your life. I had asthma since birth. Protect them.

  32. We recently bought a 3M 8210 dust mask and the feed is not encouraging; weak straps,very light fiber material and easily rip off nose clip. What recommendations are there for a dusty environment?

  33. I work in an office. There is major reconstruction going on in my building and now in my office as well. There is no place in the building where there is clean air. I purchased N95 Respirators. I will put the Respirator on prior to entering the building. With the understanding that these masks are to be disposed of after use, my question is: When I leave the building for lunch ; if I carefully place it in a plastic container; will it be safe to put it back on prior to re-entering the building? In other words, do I need to use 2 Respirators a day, or will 1 be safe if handled carefully? Thank you.

  34. Hello I am 43 years old been cleaning houses sense I was 18 years old I now have wheezing and am concerned I’ve been damaging my lungs all these years. I do not no what kind of mask/ respirator to by for all the chemicals I use? Could you help me in understanding what kind would be beneficial to me?

  35. I am going to do job with spray paint. What mask is best for that kind of job and also I am going to refinish my wood floors to get shine. Can you please let me know where I can by Respirator.
    Thank you

    • Hi, Klavs,

      TodaysHomeowner.com features home improvement advice from the nationally syndicated TV show “Today’s Homeowner” and its experts.
      We don’t sell construction products on this website, but we encourage checking your local home center for these materials.

      Good luck!

  36. It was nice that you suggested choosing a face mask that has an exhalation valve to make sure that breathing is going to be easier for you. This is something that I will make sure to remember because I’m interested in latex protection mask. My children are prone to allergies, and I want to make sure that they will be protected without making them uncomfortable. Thanks!

    • Hi, Maggie!
      We recommend contacting the respirator’s manufacturer or reading respirators’ labels to ensure the product meets your needs.
      3M has a hotline specifically for these types of technical questions. You can dial 1-800-243-4630.
      Happy fertilizing!

  37. I need a mask to protect myself against stone dust. Im going to be carving rocks and i heard that a simple mask is going to let the most dangerous particles get through. What should i get then

    • Hi, Jessika,
      3M has a great hotline for these types of technical questions. You can dial 1-800-243-4630.
      Good luck with your rock-carving project!

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