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Comparing Mask Types: Uses, Effectiveness & Regulatory Compliance

Comparing Mask Types: Uses, Effectiveness & Regulatory Compliance

, by Aussie Pharma Direct, 11 min reading time

Wearing masks has transcended from a mere preventive measure to a common norm, seamlessly integrating into our daily routines regardless of where we are or what we do. This shift has been influenced by a heightened awareness of public health, personal safety, and environmental challenges, whether it's donning a mask when feeling under the weather, visiting someone who is sick, or as a part of professional attire in healthcare settings and laboratories.

Given this widespread use and the critical role masks play in our health and safety, it's essential to understand the different types of face masks available and how they can offer protection in various scenarios. We're going to delve into some of the common mask types designed for respiratory protection, discussing their characteristics, applications, and the standards they adhere to.

Types of common face masks for everyday use

Cloth masks:

Made from various fabrics, cloth masks are reusable and washable. They're popular for everyday use in public settings. Their effectiveness can vary based on the number of layers and the type of fabric used.

Surgical masks:

Also known as medical masks, these are disposable masks that are lightweight and designed to cover the mouth and nose. Surgical masks are typically made from a type of non-woven fabric called melt-blown polypropylene. This material is chosen for its ability to effectively filter out airborne particles while remaining breathable, making them commonly used in healthcare settings and by the public for short-term use.

N95 respirators:

These masks are designed to achieve a very close facial fit and very efficient filtration of airborne particles. N95 is the standard in the United States, set by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). These masks must filter out at least 95% of airborne particles. N95 respirators are commonly used in healthcare and other industries where high protection from airborne contaminants is necessary. They offer a high level of protection for everyday public use compared to other mask types..

P2 respirators:

P2 respirators are specialised respirators that filter out airborne particles, including viruses, bacteria, and other microscopic contaminants. They follow the Australian/New Zealand Standard (AS/NZS 1716:2012).They are the Australian equivalent of N95 respirators and offer similar high levels of protection, required to filter out at least 94% of airborne particles. This makes them suitable for various environments where respiratory protection is required.

Transparent masks:

These masks feature a transparent panel that allows for lip reading and facial expressions to be visible, making them suitable for individuals who rely on visual cues for communication, such as those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Transparent masks are often made from materials like clear plastic or PET, and while they may not provide the same level of filtration as other masks, they serve an important purpose in certain situations where clear communication is essential.

What are the significant differences between these masks?

When it comes to face masks, few hold as much prominence in medical settings as the P2/N95 respirators and surgical masks. Though they are often referred to as medical grade and are regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration, they serve different purposes. 

P2/N95 masks prioritise the wearer's safety, acting as a shield against airborne particles like viruses and bacteria with at least 94% filtration efficiency. These are ideal for high-risk settings like healthcare procedures, during outbreaks, or hazardous situations like bushfires.

For standard P2 masks, the minimum filtration efficiency is 94%, however, if you're looking for better protection, there are high-performing P2 masks with nanofibre filters, such as the Australian-made AMD mask, which boasts a 99.66% Particle Filtration Efficiency (PFE). These are ideal for high-risk settings like healthcare procedures or during outbreaks. This includes hazardous situations like bushfires as well. 

Surgical masks, on the other hand, focus on protecting others. They create a barrier to catch the wearer's coughs and sneezes, making them suitable for everyday situations like having a cold or working in low-risk clinical settings. They come in different grades (levels 1, 2 and 3) based on their level of fluid resistance. Level 1 offers minimal protection and is for general use, while Level 3 provides the highest barrier against fluids, splashes, and sprays.

Cloth masks, and transparent masks offer basic, non-medical grade protection. Unlike their medical-grade counterparts, these masks are typically not regulated by agencies like the TGA and may have varying levels of effectiveness, however, they can be suitable for low-risk situations where comfort or breathability is important.

Common types of respiratory protection for industrial environments

In industrial environments, respiratory protection is most important, and there exists a wide array of masks catering to diverse needs and hazards. While the options are extensive, we've highlighted some of the common types you'll frequently encounter across various industries, each type offers specific features and levels of protection tailored to different workplace scenarios.

P100 respirators:

P100 respirators are capable of filtering out at least 99.97% of airborne particles, including oil-based particles. They offer a higher level of protection compared to N95 and P2 masks. P100 respirators are used in various industrial applications, especially in environments where exposure to oil aerosols and highly toxic particles is expected, such as in pharmaceutical manufacturing or handling hazardous materials.

FFP2 particulate respirator with valve

FFP2 respirators are part of the European standard and are similar to N95 and P2 masks in their filtration capabilities, filtering at least 94% of airborne particles. Those with valves enhance comfort by making it easier to exhale, reducing heat and moisture buildup inside the mask. They are commonly used in construction, woodworking, and other industries where dust and other fine particles are a concern.

Dust masks:

Often less sophisticated than other respirators, dust masks are usually disposable and designed to provide protection against nuisance dusts. They are typically used for lower-risk tasks in industries such as sweeping, basic construction, or gardening where non-toxic dusts are encountered.

Chemical cartridge respirators:

These are designed to provide respiratory protection against gases, vapours, or particles, depending on the cartridge used. They can be either half-face or full-face masks and are used in industries such as chemical handling, pesticide application, and in environments where harmful gases or vapours are present.

Comparison of the differences between various types of face masks

Mask Type





P2/N95 respirators are tight-fitting masks designed to filter out airborne particles with a filtration efficiency of at least 95% and 99.66% Particle Filtration Efficiency (PFE) for nano-fibre P2 masks. They provide a high level of protection against both large and small particles.

Regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) in Australia, following Australian/New Zealand Standards (AS/NZS 1716:2012) for respiratory protective devices.

Commonly used in healthcare settings, construction, industrial environments, and other situations requiring protection against airborne contaminants.

Surgical masks

Surgical masks are loose-fitting disposable masks that protect against large droplets, splashes, or sprays of bodily or other hazardous fluids. They are effective for source control, reducing the spread of respiratory droplets.

Regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) in Australia. They are classified as Class 1 medical devices and must comply with the Australian Standard AS 4381:2015 for performance and testing.

Widely used in healthcare settings, particularly during medical procedures, surgeries, and patient care, to prevent contamination and protect both the wearer and others.

Cloth masks

Cloth masks are reusable and washable masks made of various materials like cotton, polyester, or a combination. Their filtration efficacy can vary depending on the fabric used and the fit. They provide basic protection against respiratory droplets.

Not regulated by specific standards in Australia. Their efficacy depends on factors such as the number of layers, fabric type, and fit.

Suitable for general public use, especially in situations where maintaining physical distancing is challenging.

Transparent masks

Transparent masks feature a transparent panel that allows for facial expressions to be seen, which can be beneficial for communication, especially for individuals who rely on lip-reading.

Transparent masks are not typically regulated by specific standards in Australia. Their design may vary based on the manufacturer, focusing primarily on communication and visibility.

Suitable for individuals who require visual communication cues, such as those who are deaf or hard of hearing, educators, therapists, and individuals in customer service roles.

P100 respirators

P100 masks are designed to filter out at least 99.7% of airborne particles. This makes them ideal for environments with extremely high concentrations of hazardous airborne contaminants, such as asbestos, lead, and certain types of silica dust.

The regulation of P100 masks in Australia depends on their intended use. If designed for medical settings, they fall under TGA regulations and adhere to AS/NZS 1716 with additional medical use requirements. For industrial applications, they are not TGA-regulated but likely follow standards like AS/NZS 1716 as set by the WHS Act.

Widely used in industrial settings with hazardous materials, such as construction sites, manufacturing, and agriculture.

Particulate respirators with valve The main benefit of a valve is increased comfort during wear. The valve opens during exhalation, releasing exhaled breath and moisture more easily. This helps reduce heat and humidity buildup inside the mask, making it easier to breathe, especially during heavy exertion. Many valved N95 and P2 masks are intended for industrial applications and are not considered medical devices. Therefore, they would not be directly regulated by the TGA. Widely used in construction, woodworking, any dusty environment.
Dust masks Lightweight, less filtration, protects against non-toxic dust Complies with AS/NZS 1716:2012, however, it depends on product and manufacturers Gardening, cleaning, and other low-risk dust environments
Chemical cartridge respirators Equipped with cartridges for specific chemicals AS/NZS 1716:2012, AS/NZS 1715:2009 for selection & use Used for handling chemicals, spray painting, and other industrial applications


Regulatory standards play a pivotal role in ensuring the effectiveness and safety of face masks, providing consumers with confidence in the products they choose to wear. These standards establish guidelines for design, construction, performance, and labelling, helping manufacturers produce masks that meet minimum requirements for protection.

In Australia, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) serves as the primary regulatory body overseeing medical devices, including face masks. The TGA regulates masks classified as medical devices under the Therapeutic Goods Act 1989, ensuring they meet stringent safety and quality standards.

Outside of Australia, various regulatory bodies and standards govern face masks in different regions. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates surgical masks and similar medical devices, while the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) oversees respirators, including N95 respirators. European countries adhere to the European Union Medical Device Regulation (EU MDR) and European Standard EN 14683 for surgical masks and EN 149 for respirators.


In conclusion, selecting face masks that adhere to regulatory standards such as those set by Australia/New Zealand or equivalent standards is crucial for ensuring their effectiveness and safety. Whether you're choosing masks for everyday use or for industrial purposes, compliance with established standards provides assurance of quality, performance, and protection. Masks that meet these standards undergo rigorous testing to ensure they offer the specified level of filtration and meet safety requirements.

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