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When you work with chemicals, or tools that create substantial amounts of dust or debris you are putting both external and internal parts of your body at risk. One of the most sensitive areas of our bodies are our eyes – and the lungs interact with the outside world more so than any other internal organ. If you do not take the proper steps to protect them, you run the risk of both short term and long term damage. There is a reason all of those cliche ‘Safety is our first priority” signs exist.
Our Top 3 Picks
The chance of it happening may be low, but every year there are dozens and dozens of cases of people who didn’t take the proper precautions severely damaging themselves. To address this reality, manufacturers have developed numerous devices provide various levels of protection. From simple cloth masks to elaborate solar powered face shields – there is no shortage of options available when it comes to protecting yourself.
Due to the growing investment by both amateurs and professionals in their own safety and the safety of their employees, companies have developed a plethora of options when it comes to safety devices that protect your face and airways. We have created this guide to help you dig through this myriad of choices and find the right mask for your needs. Not all masks are built the same, and we have applied criteria that will help you weigh your options accurately and equitably.
This criterion, as well as an FAQ regarding safety masks, is also contained within this article. The hope is that we not only provide you with some key recommendations but also help guide you through understanding and evaluating this type of gear for yourself.
We made an effort to avoid reviewing to extremely similar products from the same vendor – for example one with an extra strap or feature as opposed to one without. Including the related products would only result in a list that recommended a few very similar products. So if something on this list seems like a good fit for you, look around a bit and see if there are similar options with maybe one or two small differences that may suit you even better.
One last note: We had planned to include welding masks in this list initially, but the extensive differences and factors, as well as the unique aspects of that market, were increasing the scope of the article past what is practical. We will be creating a list based solely on welding masks sometime shortly.
Eliminates odors very well
Can be difficult to properly seal
Full face design
The Dielectric design makes it suitable for electrical uses but leaves a lot to be desired when plastic has to be used
Made for comfort.
Good, solid design.
Top strap can be overly delicate
Time tested design
Small individuals may find it a little large
As with most respirators of this type, a beard will make a complete seal difficult
Durable enough to protect you from most blows to the face
May need to be augmented with additional protective measures
Very low cost
Great filtering abilities
Better comfort fit than standard masks
Although cheap, it is not a long term solution if you do constant work
Not very durable
Goggles prone to fogging
Very well designed
Requires very industrial work to justify the purchase
Wraps around the face for good seal
Highly lauded for its great overall fit
Efficient and durable
Straps are a weak point in the equipment's lifespan
Solid pieces of gear
Hearing and face combination
Not as comfortable as some comparable offers
When making this list, we had to dig through a lot of high-quality pieces of gear (and some not so high-quality ones) in order to parse the list down to what we believed were the “best” masks available. Keep in mind: best is referring to the overall value – not necessarily the outright function of the device. There were quite a few options that were near triple the price of those we chose, and though they may have performed a bit better, we determined that these slight improvements did not justify huge jumps in price. With that said, we had to determine the value and rate the devices, and in order to do this fairly, we had to develop criteria from which to work from. Some of these metrics are pretty obvious (Protection ratings) while others are a bit more subjective (comfort). In order to better help you understand our selection process, and perhaps to help you better judge this gear for yourself, we have explained each key aspect that was evaluated.
Keep in mind that many of the pieces of gear that we listed are only superior to one another if the job you are doing determines that they are. If a safety mask or respirator cannot perform the functions necessary for you to complete your task, then it’s overall value for you will, of course, be zero.
The price was not as big a factor in this list as it is in many of other ones. Granted price excluded quite a few items, but that is only because there are so many quality options for both safety masks and respirators at low prices to the point that you are debating between $3-10 differences. We still made sure to weigh the benefits of the tool against its price and to judge it on that curve.
These masks all had some sort of government or safety commission rating, and this is important to note when making your decision. We will briefly cover some of the rating systems in the FAQ, but for now, suffice to say a piece of gear with a higher rating was given a considerable amount favoritism when weighed against other options.
Most of these masks will need to be worn for the duration of your time working – often long grueling hours. Always fidgeting and struggling with your mask is one of the worst things you can suffer through when trying to concentrate on the job. Large preference was given to the headgear that offered the best and most comfortable fit.
Understanding the risks associated with whatever task you are doing is extremely important for physical creators ranging from the first time greenhorn to the seasoned professional. If you aren’t sure what risks a task requires, you should make sure you properly research it before attempting the job.
As a quick overhead: Anything that entails cutting, grinding or something of that sort will create debris that is both large and microscopic. You will need to ensure goggles or a mask is protecting your eyes from the larger debris, sparks or whatever – while a respirator or mask is protecting your airway from the smaller airborne debris.
If you are using spray paint, bug killer or anything else that is an aerosol or suspends particulates inside of air or gas, you need to make sure a respirator is stopping those toxins from entering your lungs.
Face shields are used to protect from everything from falling or flying objects, impacts, chemical splashes and airborne debris and really anything that can wind up in your face. These are usually best paired up with goggles and a mouth covering to catch anything that may sneak in under the mask (if it does not encompass the chin area).
Paints, pesticides, dust and a large variety of other airborne particulates are all captured and filtered out by a respirator. This allows you to breathe while operating in air that would otherwise harm your lungs. Even mowing and bagging can cause breathing difficulty to those sensitive to the chemicals released in the process. A good respirator will filter out paint and dust, as well as allergens, mold spores, leaves, grass clippings, pollen, pet hair and dander while working.
These provide a similar function to respirators but are generally not as efficient and/or do not last as long. Surgical masks can be used for many of the same tasks but must be replaced more often and used in shorter periods of time. This is very dependent on the particular mask since this category has an extensive range of options.
Welding masks are in a whole class of their own. Modern welding masks resemble something from a sci-fi movie. They need to protect the user from extremely hot and dangerous debris, as well as UV/IR light.Needless to say, these are a necessity when you are welding – as permanent eye and skin damage virtually guaranteed over time without protection.
There are a number of organizations out there that provide ratings for many aspects of protective gear. Everything from bullet proof vests to hard hats are tested and given a rating that helps inform the purchaser (and insurance companies) what general level of protection that equipment offers.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
NIOSH is a part of the CDC and is focused on the study of worker safety and health. They are the ones who provided the air filtration ratings that we cited on our list and our your safest bet for accurate evaluations of respirator filters.
Ratings of this type from NIOSH will have both a letter and a number. For example, N95.
The letter signifies the item’s resistance to oil, which is a concern for many occupations since oil will quickly degrade the effectiveness of a filter.
The letters go as follows:
N – Not Resistant to Oil
R – Somewhat Resistant to Oil
P – Strongly Resistant to Oil (Oil Proof)
An N will likely last around 8 hours, while a P can last for nearly a month.
The Numbers, such as 95,99 or 100 signify the percentage (95%, 99% 100%) of airborne particles the mask will filter out. The higher the number, the denser the material – and the harder it will be to breathe through as well.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration – U.S. Department of Labor (OSHA)
OSHA ratings, including the ANSI ratings (American National Standards Institute), provides the most trusted ratings for the durability and ability of protective equipment.
OSHA APF refers to “Assigned Protection Factors.” These require entire glossaries to understand fully, but for now, just know that it means a piece of equipment was certified as some level to be effective.
ANSI ratings are divided into different classifications. Z87.1 refers to eye and face classifications, while Z89.1 refers to head (crown) protection. In out usage, these were followed by years, such as in ANSI Z89.1-2003. The ANSI standards have been updated multiple times (2003, 2010, 2015) and the year reflects under what year and criteria they were certified.
The aim of these ratings is to certify a piece of equipment to be viable in the case of “Specific hazards encountered in the workplace.”
There are also follow up classes (Class E, Class G,etc.) that refer to electrical voltage resistance as well as types (type I, type II, etc.,) that refer to the level of protection hard hat will offer. You should spend some time looking into these specific classifications of your job requires a particular level or type of protection.
If you grind wood and metal a lot, then you have seen your safety mask getting dirty and dusty. You should change the cartridges frequently. But how do you clean your safety mask? It’s pretty easy given that you know the parts that come off and how to put them back, and it only takes about 15 minutes.
1. Remove the cartridges. You twist them to unlock for removal.
2. Take off the strap. You must pull the straps near the mouth piece pretty hard, but be careful to avoid breaking the straps.
3. Remove the gasket (mostly red) on the outer side of the mask where you removed the cartridges, and pull out the rubber covering the mouth piece.
4. Take off the two rubber flaps on the inner side attached in a hole at the center.
Inspection is recommended to ensure that all components are in good working condition. If any of the parts are defective or damaged, it needs a replacement or repair. The following is the inspection procedure:
1. Inspect the face piece for cracks, tears or dirt. Ensure the face seal area is not deformed.
2. Check the straps for elasticity and tears, and ensure they are all intact.
3. Inspect all plastic parts for cracks and tear, and ensure seal areas and filter gaskets are in good working condition.
4. Check the exhalation valve for cracks, dirt, distortion or tear.
5. Examine the lens for cracks and any other damage that might impair vision or performance.
Warning: Cartridges can collapse and become ineffective when in use. If you detect any irritation, odor or tastes, leave the area you are in and change the cartridges.
What Supplies Do You Need?
All the following supplies are available at any drug shop.
• A Clean Jar Lid
• Isopropyl Rubbing Alcohol
• Cotton pads since cotton balls may leave too much fur
• A well lit and spacious working surface
1. Put a little of the alcohol into a clean jar rid. This helps prevent contamination of all the alcohol in the bottle.
2. Take the Q-tips and cotton pads to wipe the rubber mask inside and outside, all rubber parts, gaskets, and plastic mouthpiece holding the straps to the respirator.
3. Once everything is clean, reassemble the components in the reverse order, which you took them apart.
• Warm water
• Mild Detergent
• Stiff bristle brush
• Hypochlorite solution, quaternary ammonia disinfectant or Aqueous iodine solution
• Clean lint-free cloth
• Respirator cleaning wipes
1. Clean the face-piece with a respirator cleaning wipes or by dipping in warm water solution. The solution is made of warm water with a temperature of less than 50º C and a mild detergent. Also, use the bristle (not wire) brush to scrub off the dirt. Use cleaners that do not contain lanolin oil.
2. If the cleaner does not have a disinfecting agent, immerse the components for two minutes in hypochlorite solution, quaternary ammonia disinfectant, aqueous iodine solution, available cleansers with equivalent disinfectant quality, or any cleaning agent approved by the manufacturer.
3. Rinse the components in clean, fresh, warm running water (43°C [110°F] maximum) in a non-contaminated area. Drain the components. Rinsing is recommended because the disinfectants and the detergent that dry on the face pieces can lead to dermatitis. Also, if the disinfectants are not completely removed the rubber parts can tear while the metal parts can corrode.
4. Use the lint-free cloth to hand-dry the components of the mask or air-dry them.
5. Reassemble the mask’s components. If any of them is defective, then repair or replace it.
6. Test the safety to ensure all parts work properly.
7. Store the safety mask in a storage bag when not in use away from contaminated areas.
This list, FAQ, and criterion should hopefully give you all the tools you need to go out and make an informed purchasing decision when it comes to respirators and protective masks. With industries like safety equipment – a large amount of options and differing ratings can all get fairly overwhelming, and when you are trying to make a purchase you will literally have to wear on your face, it can be outright frustrating. We did our best to make sure you were offered plenty of quality decisions outright as well as the criteria from which you should judge these items for yourself – as well as a brief explanation of some of the terminology. You may disagree with us one some, or even many of the points made here, and that is okay. I’ve found that disagreeing with someone often help me solidify why I believe what I do – and in the buying process it can be just as helpful to you for making a decision as the agreement would have been. Weigh your options and investigate for yourself whether or not a mask you find interesting here is the best choice for you overall. If you do, then it is unlikely you will come away from this important purchase dissatisfied.
So whether you are a professional in need of a new ballistic quality mask or someone who simply has a lot of paint to spray – there is something here suited to your needs. Good luck – and remember – build smart, build safe, and build big.