We all need air, but sometimes the air we breathe isn't safe due to airborne particles like smoke, fumes, vapors, dust, and pollen. In cases of air pollution, it's imperative to protect your lungs, and you can reduce the risk of respiratory issues with a dust mask. These masks when placed correctly over your nose and mouth act as a filter. Depending on the type of air pollution, you need a specific type of mask. If you're planning on doing home improvements, such as painting, dry wallwork, or sanding, you need to invest in a quality mask to ensure your safety.
We've put together this short guide to provide all the info you need to know before making a purchase. We've also included our top recommendations -- our favorite dust mask by CFORWARD has an activated carbon filter that's a top pick with seasonal allergy sufferers.
Considerations when choosing dust masks
Particle filters protect you from inhaling dust, pollen, mold spores, pet dander, and other particles down to 0.3 microns in size. For comparison, a human hair is 55 microns in width. Be advised that these masks don't work on fumes and vapors (such as paint fumes), other chemical gases, or super toxic dust. Use a particle mask when you're sanding/sawing or running outside when it's high-pollen season.
Vapor filters protect you from fumes, chemical vapors, perfume, household cleaning products, and gases. If you're painting your walls, this is the type of mask you want. They contain activated charcoal (oxidized with oxygen) that's incredibly absorptive. Some double to remove airborne particles with a prefilter. More advanced vapor masks, called powered air-purifying respirators (PAPR), have a small fan that keeps air circulating inside the mask for ease of breathing.
Dust masks are rated for efficacy by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in two ways: letter designations and number designations.
N means the mask is not resistant to oil, so it should not be used in situations when oil mist is in the air.
R means the mask is somewhat resistant to oil and can be used in situations with oil mist, but for no longer than eight hours.
P means the mask is strongly resistant to oil mist.
95 means 95% of airborne particles are filtered out.
99 means 99% of airborne particles are filtered out.
100 means 99.7% of airborne particles are filtered out.
These letters and numbers are combined to create a full picture of what a specific particle mask is rated for (such as N-95 or P-100).
Your dust mask must fit properly to be effective. Expect to see small, medium, and large sizing for masks. Different models may extend this sizing or only offer one size.
Disposable masks are designed to be thrown away after a short amount of time. In some instances, these can provide better protection than washable masks.
Replaceable masks contain a replaceable cartridge or filter in addition to the mask part. These cartridges or filters are designed to be thrown away after significant use and replaced with another one. The mask itself can be washed and reused.
Half masks cover the lower half of your face, including the nose and mouth, and are suited for situations where particles or vapor does not irritate your eyes or skin.
Full-face masks protect the entire face, including the eyes and skin. This type of mask is suited for situations when muriatic acid fumes or other contaminants are present that affect eyes and skin in addition to the lungs.
Dust mask prices
Disposable masks are priced between $1 and $2 apiece. Washable dust masks are priced between $10 and $20; more heavy-duty washable ones with a replaceable filter can cost up to $60. Full-face masks cost up to $80.
Q. Can I wear a dust mask if I have a beard?
A. Unfortunately, it's impossible to get an airtight seal around your chin with a dust mask if you have a beard. Back in the day, firemen used to soak their beards before going into smoky conditions. However, this won't actually protect your lungs from airborne particles.
Q. Is there a fit test for dust masks?
A. To check if there are any air leaks once the dust mask has been placed over your face, we recommend performing a fit test every time you wear one. Place both hands over the mask, breathe in and out, and see if any air slips out. When a dust mask is properly fitted you should also see the mask collapse a little when you inhale and bulge somewhat when you exhale.
Dust masks we recommend
Best of the best: CFORWARD Dustproof Mask With Activated Charcoal
Our take: A reusable mask with a filter that provides durable, comfortable wear.
What we like: Material is washable and soft. Reliable for dust protection. Contains activated charcoal filters. Colors to choose from.
What we dislike: Too tight-fitting for some users.
Best bang for your buck: 3M Home Dust Mask
Our take: Pack of five disposable, budget-friendly masks for home use.
What we like: Affordable. Lightweight and adjustable. Reputable brand. Fits most users' needs for dust protection.
What we dislike: Not as durable as reusable masks.
Our take: Reusable dust mask with a built-in filter and streamlined, attractive fit.
What we like: Military-grade activated charcoal filter. Rated N-99. Doesn't feel bulky to wear. Comes in a choice of colors and patterns.
What we dislike: Pricier but not necessarily more durable than less expensive masks.
Ana Sanchez is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.
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