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Whether you're a hobby metal worker or a professional who deals with toxic chemicals every day, a good respirator can help protect you from harm.
But to the uninitiated, the world of respirators can be baffling. Different respirators are suited to different jobs. Some use chemical cartridges; others have particulate filters. So, how do you pick the one you need?
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The buying guide below is a good place to start, as it contains all you need to know about finding the correct respirator to fit your needs.
However, if you already know the ins and outs of respirators, the product matrix above provides a snapshot review of the best respirators on the market right now.
In this review, we focus on the two most common types of reusable respirators: full-face and half-face respirators.
Two other types of respirators, disposables and dedicated air supplies, are outside the scope of this review.
Disposable respirators don’t offer the same class of protection as reusable respirators, and dedicated air supplies are typically used in specialized professional or industrial situations.
Half-face respirators, sometimes known as “half-mask” respirators, cover your mouth and nose and are usually fitted with a single strap around the back of the head.
Many people find half-face respirators less intrusive.
Eye protection is unnecessary for some jobs, such as painting or staining.
If you do need eye protection, you can choose your own when wearing a half-face respirator.
Most half-face respirators fit under welding hoods.
If the jobs you plan to perform don't require eye protection, a half-face respirator is all you need.
Full-face respirators cover your mouth and nose and provide built-in eye protection.
Full-face respirators protect your eyes from harm, as well as your lungs.
The eye protection built into full-face respirators is often superior to goggles or safety glasses.
Full-face respirators have a tendency to steam up unless they have a way to release moisture, like the cool flow valve in 3M respirators.
People who wear glasses need to make sure the arms don't interfere with the seal around the edge of their full-face respirator.
Respirators filters come in two varieties: chemical cartridges and particulate filters. Let's explore the differences and when you might need to use each type.
You need a respirator with chemical cartridges when working with chemicals, including spray paints, certain solvents, chlorine, and ammonia. Common types of chemical cartridges include:
Organic Vapor (OV): Filters vapors from organic liquids, such as gasoline, some solvents, and paints.
Acid Gas (AG): Filters toxic gases including sulfur dioxide, hydrogen chloride, and hydrogen sulfide.
OV/AG: A dual cartridge that filters everything covered by OV and AG cartridges.
Alkaline: Filters alkaline chemicals such as ammonia, methylamine, and phosphine.
Multipurpose: Filters organic vapors, acid gas, and alkaline.
For "Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health" hazards, a regular respirator isn't enough. Call in professionals or, if you are a professional, consider if a respirator with dedicated air supply is appropriate.
Particulate filters are used to protect against biological contaminants or anything which releases physical particles. Examples include dust, mold, viruses, bacteria, bleach, lead, and asbestos.
That said, not all particulate filters are created equal. Let's look at the different particulate filter classifications and what they mean:
N95: Filters no less than 95% of airborne particulates; not oil-resistant.
N99: Filters no less than 99% of airborne particulates; not oil-resistant.
N100: Filters no less than 99.7% of airborne particulates; not oil-resistant.
R95: Filters no less than 95% of airborne particulates; resistant to oil for up to 8 hours.
P99: Filters no less than 95% of airborne particulates; resistant to oil for over 8 hours.
P100: Filters no less than 99.97% of airborne particulates; resistant to oil for over 8 hours.
Particulate filter classifications starting with "N" are not oil-resistant; those starting with "R" are somewhat oil-resistant; and those starting with "P" are strongly oil-resistant.
Some respirators are one-size-fits-all, but this can be less than optimum, especially for women or younger people who tend to have smaller faces.
However, an increasing number of manufacturers offer respirators in a variety of sizes — usually small, medium, and large — which means smaller folks don't have to buy from specialist retailers.
Your respirator should fit securely with no gaps between your face and the seal.
Half-face respirators are usually held in place with a single strap, whereas their full-face counterparts may have a four- or five-point strap.
All respirators are tested before they go on the market, but testing can’t account for your individual face shape. If you work with substances such as lead or asbestos in a professional capacity, your employer will probably make sure you have a qualitative or quantitative fit test for your respirator to ensure there's no leakage.
If you need both chemical and particulate protection, some respirators allow you to use a chemical cartridge with a particulate pre-filter.
The straps on your respirator should be fully adjustable to help get the right fit and a good seal around the outside. The straps should be easy to reach so you can adjust them while the respirator is on your face.
Adjustable straps make it easier to get a good seal around the edge of your respirator.
Different respirators come with varying types of filters and/or chemical cartridges. Some respirators have multi-purpose filters that protect against a range of substances, from dust to ammonia to airborne viruses. Others are more specialized and are only designed to protect you from certain substances, such as paint fumes.
If you're unsure whether the filters in a particular respirator would protect you appropriately, it's best to check with the manufacturer.
If you're going to work with a range of substances, we recommend getting a respirator which accepts various filters so you can change them as needed.
If price is a factor when deciding which respirator to buy, it's worth noting that half-face respirators are much less expensive than full-face varieties.
Basic half-face respirators suitable for paint projects start at as little as $15 or $20. More sophisticated models might cost closer to $50.
While we've seen full-face respirators on the market for as little as $60 or $70, these are from unknown brands and may not be particularly effective. If you want a full-face respirator that gets the job done, we recommend spending between $100 and $200+.
Q. Is there any safety advice I should know before using my respirator?
A. It's vital to be cautious when using a respirator, especially when dealing with potentially harmful substances. As such, we recommend the following safety advice.
Be mindful of any changes in smell or taste when using your respirator. Replace the filters if you notice anything unusual.
Don't use your respirator if it's wet, as most stop working effectively if introduced to water.
If it becomes hard to breathe through your respirator, it usually means the filters are clogged and need changing.
Replace your respirator if there's any damage to the seal around the edge.
Always read the instructions that come with your respirator before you start work.
Q. What does NIOSH mean?
A. "NIOSH" stands for National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a federal agency concerned with the prevention of work-related injury and illness. If a respirator model is NIOSH-approved, it has undergone rigorous testing and meets the organization’s high standards. We only recommend using a NIOSH-approved respirator.
Q. How do I know if I need a respirator with a chemical cartridge or a particulate filter?
A. A good rule of thumb is that if you're working with dusts, mists, fumes, or molds, you'll need a particulate filter. If you're working with gases or vapors, you'll need a chemical cartridge.
If you're unsure which type you need, it's best to contact the manufacturer and ask if their respirator is suitable for the job you have in mind.
At BestReviews, we purchase every product we review with our own funds. We never accept anything from product manufacturers. Our goal is to be 100% objective in our analysis, and we do not want to run the risk of being swayed by products provided at no cost.