Surgical Masks vs Respirators

an image of a surgical mask and an image of a respirator to compare

There is a big difference between a respirator and a surgical mask as they were each designed for very different purposes. The team at 3M came up with a very clever way to demonstrate these differences. They decided to take the Surgical Mask (SM) and the N95 Respirator (N95) to the bar to find out exactly how the two differ.

An N95 Respirator and a Surgical Mask Walk Into a Bar (Written by 3M):

surgical mask and respirator at a bar


N95: Surgical Mask, so good to see you; you haven’t changed a bit.

SM: Yep, still thin, and single band—simplicity is my game. How about you?

N95: I’ve been working out [flexes]. Ahh. I’m still NIOSH-approved and double-banded to fit tightly across a wide range of faces… How’s work been going?

SM: Boss only sticks me in non-hazardous dust situations. Kind of a dead-end job—I really wish I could do more.

N95: Did you ever go back and get your certification?

SM: No, I’m just a surgical mask, still don’t have any certifications. How ‘bout you?

N95: I’ve been in all sorts of particulate applications! Sanding, grinding, painting… Employers treat me nice, put me in a full respirator program including medical evaluations and fit testing so they know how to wear me the right way.

SM: No way. I never get that kind of treatment.

N95: Let’s be honest, you’re not a respirator and aren’t intended to help protect the wearer. But hey, I know how you feel. I still get looked down on a bunch.

SM: What, you? You’re NIOSH-certified!! You have all those workplace protection factor studies and OSHA assigned you the same protection factor as reusable half mask respirators.

N95: Yes, I am a 10! An APF 10, if used correctly.

SM: But some people still don’t treat you right? Why is that?

N95: Well… [nervously pauses]

SM: It’s me, isn’t it? People are prejudiced cause they associate you with me, don’t they?

N95: Uh…

SM: That’s not fair. I get what I get, and that’s what I deserve. But that’s no reason to stereotype you! Why do people judge by appearances? Why can’t they look at the data?

N95: Don’t be too hard on yourself. Even respirators have to be part of an OSHA compliant respirator program to achieve their full potential.

SM: At least we could still work together in voluntary use areas.

N95: Yes, that’s true.

[Both turn to notice two particles that just walked in.]

SM: Do you think we could still pick them up?

N95: I know I could!

For those looking for a more serious comparison, we’ve got you covered:

comparison between a surgical mask and a respirator by 3M

By 3M (

If you still have questions or need assistance choosing the correct respiratory protection, contact one of the Khulanathi Respiratory Experts who will be happy to help: