How to Choose the Right Mask Level - ASTM 1,2,3 vs P2/N95

Face masks and respirators, when used correctly, can offer a good level of protection against viruses, bacteria and other potentially harmful airborne particles. Helping to keep you safe and prevent you from spreading diseases to those you meet, good quality facemasks are an essential element of personal protective equipment.

During the pandemic, masks have played an important role in protecting both healthcare professionals and members of the public. However, with so many different types of masks on the market, it can be difficult to know which option is right for you. To help you find the right mask for your needs, we’re taking a look at the various masks available, their ratings and what these numbers really mean for you.

What is the Difference Between a Disposable Mask, a Surgical Mask and a Respirator?

There are three main types of face coverings currently on the market:

  • Face masks (can include single use masks and cloth masks)
  • Surgical masks
  • Respirators 

Of these three, face masks have the lowest requirements on filtration efficiency. In fact, many aren’t regulated at all and may not offer a significant amount of protection, especially against airborne particles.

Surgical masks are loose-fitting, disposable devices that create a physical barrier between the mouth and nose of the wearer and contaminants in the immediate area. Surgical masks can also be labelled as isolation, dental, or medical procedure masks.

Surgical masks should have a high level of fluid resistance and are designed to protect against splashes of blood, sprays of saliva, sneezing and other events that can cause you to come into direct contact with contaminants. These masks aren’t designed to stop aerosols and won’t prevent you from breathing in small virus particles.

Respirators have even higher requirements than medical masks. They’re designed to form a seal around the nose and mouth to prevent airborne droplets and particles reaching your airway.

Respirators often have exhalation valves to allow stale air to escape and offer a very high level of protection against all types of airborne contaminants. Respirators can be used as PPE in medical settings or to stop pollution, dust and other harmful substances from being inhaled.  


Common Safety Ratings for Face Masks and Respirators

When looking for surgical masks, disposable masks and respirators, the most common ratings you’re likely to see are ASTM 1, 2 and 3, P2 and N95.

ASTM stands for the American Society for Testing and Materials. The society is a developer of international voluntary consensus standards. Face coverings that bear an ASTM rating have been proven to offer a certain level of protection. Masks with an ASTM rating of 3 offer the best protection against coronavirus and other dangerous droplets, while those with a rating of ASTM level 1 offer the least protection.

In most cases, ASTM ratings apply to surgical masks. Respirators are required to adhere to different regulations, these standards vary from country to country.

In the US, respirators are approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Respirators that meet these standards will be labelled N95, N99 or N100.

In Australia and New Zealand, masks that meet the standards set by the two countries are labelled P1, P2 and P3. P2 masks are equivalent with American standard N95 respirators.

Masks manufactured in China have to meet Chinese safety standards. These respirators are labelled KN95, KN99 or KN100. While in Europe, you’ll see masks listed as FFP1, FFP2 or FFP3.

Respirators are specifically designed to offer respiratory protection. As well as being suitable for use in health care settings, respirators are often used as PPE by people working in polluted areas or in places with potentially harmful airborne particles.


What Do Face Mask Safety Ratings Really Mean?

Understanding what exactly mask safety ratings mean will help you decide which option is right for you.

A mask with an ASTM rating of 1 will keep out up to 95% of particles measuring 3.0 microns, and up to 95% of particles measuring 0.1 microns.

Masks with an ASTM rating of 2 will filter out up to 98% of 3.0 and 0.1 micron particles. Masks with an ASTM rating of 3 are also required to keep out up to 98% of particles.

NIOSH-approved respirators are usually labelled N95, N99 or N100. N95 respirators are required to filter up to 95% of 0.3 micron particles. N99 masks will keep out 99% of 0.3 micron particles, while N100 respirators offer the highest protection, with up to 100% particulate filtration.

European respirators are required to meet slightly different standards. FFP1 masks need to keep up to 80% of 0.3 micron particles out, FFP2 masks have to stop up to 94% of 0.3 micron particles and FFP3 masks prevent up to 99% of 0.3 micron particles being inhaled by the wearer. P1, P2 and P3 respirators produced in Australia and New Zealand are more or less equivalent with European standards.  


Which Mask Offers the Best Protection Against Covid-19?

In general, standard, single use face masks offer the least protection against Covid-19 (including the Delta variant). These types of disposable protective masks aren’t regulated and so don’t have to meet any set standards. If worn correctly, they will provide some protection against coronavirus, though it’s impossible to say how effective they’ll be.

Surgical, or medical procedure masks, look and fit a bit like disposable masks. However, as they are used in health care settings they’re regulated and are required to meet set standards. NIOSH certified masks have headbands instead of ear loops. This creates a tighter seal and ensures the mask fits tightly around the nose and mouth.

Masks with an ASTM Level 2 rating are generally sufficient for most people. However, if you work in a healthcare setting or are concerned about coming into direct contact with virus particles, the better protection offered by Level 3 masks might help to put your mind at ease.

If you’re concerned about breathing in airborne coronavirus particles, a respirator could be a good option as they fit tightly around your nose and mouth. The materials used to make respirators are chosen to maximise breathability and airflow. This makes respirators a great choice if you need to wear your PPE for long periods of time.

N95 masks will filter out up to 95% of 0.3 micron particles while FFP2 and P2 respirators protect against 94% of particles of the same size. This small difference in filtration efficiency won’t have a significant impact on the protection level of the mask. N95 and FFP2 respirators are readily available from online suppliers. If you want an even higher level of protection, you could opt for a N100 or FFP3 respirator.

Although effective vaccines are now widely available, masks and respirators still play an important role in limiting virus transmission and keeping us all safe. To find out more, and explore our collection of high quality PPE, take a look around or get in touch today.

Previous article Top Nursing Statistics for Australia
Next article 16 Jobs that Require Scrubs