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With face coverings becoming compulsory on public transport on 15th June, you must know what type to wear to stay safe. This article details the differences between FFP respirators and surgical masks to help you make informed choices and stay safe at the station, onboard, and beyond.

The two types of face covering

Face coverings are divided into two categories: surgical masks and respirators. The primary purpose of surgical masks is to be used as a medical device, while respirators are used as personal protective equipment (PPE) by caregivers and contagious patients.


The level of protection depends on the type of face covering. The vast majority of surgical masks are not assigned a safety rating, while respirators include safety ratings (we will discuss safety ratings in the later section - ‘What are FFP Respirators?)

What is a surgical mask? 

What is a surgical mask?


A surgical mask is a disposable medical device which protects against infectious agents transmitted by droplets. It does not, however, protect against airborne particles, which means it will not prevent the wearer from potential virus contamination. 

Surgical masks serve two main purposes:

  • - Prevents saliva droplets and secretions from the respiratory tract when the wearer exhales. If worn by a caregiver, the mask protects both the patient and the environment (air, surfaces, equipment). If worn by a patient, it will prevent them from contaminating their immediate environment.
  • - Protects the wearer against transmission via droplets and the risk of becoming infected by biological fluids. For the latter, the surgical mask must have a waterproof layer, with further reinforcement coming in the form of a visor that offers eye protection. 

Typical uses for surgical masks

  • - Dentistry
  • - Surgery
  • - Numerous medical procedures
  • - Self-isolation


What is a respirator? 

What is a respirator?

A respirator is a type of PPE that prevents the wearer from inhaling hazardous agents, such as aerosols (e.g. dust, smoke) and gases (e.g. anaesthetic gases, disinfectants). Respirators also protect the wearer from airborne infectious agents, such as coronaviruses (i.e. Covid-19, MERS, SARS). 

What are FFP respirators?

Filtering Facepiece Respirators (FFP) consist of a facepiece and a filtering device. The filter type determines the level of protection offered, for example, FFP1 respirators are suitable for low-level dust and water-based mists, while FFP2s offer increased protection against moderate levels of dust, water-based mists and oil. FFP3 compliant respirators are typically used for higher-level dust, biological agents, and asbestos removal.


It should also be noted that respirators protect wearers from inhaling infectious agent droplets.

FFP respirators vs surgical masks

Surgical Masks FFP Respirators
Loose-fitting, covering the nose and mouth Tight-fitting to create a facial seal
Offer one-way protection captures bodily fluids expelled by the wearer Two-way protection, filtering both inflow and outflow or air
Contrary to popular belief, surgical masks are not designed to protect the wearer Designed to protect the wearer up to the mask’s safety rating
The vast majority of surgical masks do not have an assigned safety rating Available in disposable, half-face, and full-face variants

How to choose the right face covering

Several criteria should be considered when choosing a face covering:

Which type of face covering is required?

As we have covered, surgical masks and respirators have different functions and objectives. The key aspect to bear in mind is that surgical masks only protect against infectious agents transmitted via droplets, while respirators also safeguard against the inhalation of airborne infectious agents.


The use of a face covering is determined by the workplace environment and the potential presence of contagious diseases.  For instance, FFP1 respirators may be suitable in low-risk situations, while FFP3 respirators will be essential in higher-risk industries.

Disposable or reusable

Surgical masks are only available as disposable. Respirators, on the other hand, are often reusable. With respirators, it is also possible to replace their filter when it is full.


There are different sizes of masks available, which are adaptable to the wearer’s morphology. Some respirators can also be equipped with an exhalation valve which enhances breathability, while others are fitted with a visor to provide eye protection.

How to use a face covering

Certain precautions should be taken when fitting a surgical mask or respirator. See below for a step by step guide on how to use a face covering.
  • ·        Holding the mask by it ties, apply the most padded side to you face
  • ·        Ensure the strip is up at the nose
  • ·        Position the upper ties on the top of the head and the lower ties at neck level. To do this, make sure the mask is properly unfolded
  • ·        The mask should cover the nose, mouth, and chin
  • ·        When fitting a respirator, you can check if it fits properly by closing the filter surface and inhaling slowly
  • ·        If the mask moulds around your face, it is well placed
  • ·        Once you have fitted the covering, avoid touching or repositioning it until it is time to take it off
  • ·        Surgical masks should be at least every three hours; respirators should be replaced every three to eight hours
  • ·        Ensure you wash your hands before and after each change
  • ·        After use, surgical masks should be disposed of immediately in the appropriate manner

Which surgical masks or respirators protect against coronavirus?

In the presence of patients with contagious viruses like coronavirus, caregivers must be equipped with a suitable mask offering sufficient protection. It is recommended that caregivers wear a respirator of at least class FFP2 or FFP3 to ensure maximum filtration of aerosols and particles when caring for an infected patient. Patients, on the other hand, should wear a surgical mask as soon contagion is suspected.