Updated May 2022
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Buying guide for Best dust masks

Breathing isn’t optional, but airborne particles, vapors, fumes, or smoke endanger lungs, and can even be life-threatening. In those moments, you need a dust mask to make breathing safe once again.

Concerning your health, you don't want to just be pretty sure you'll be okay. You need to know your lungs will be safe. Will the same mask work for paint fumes and drywall dust? Can you just cover your mouth or do you need your skin and eyes protected, too? There are probably a lot of questions racing through your head – and even more concerns.

The world has come a long way since believing soaking our beards and gritting our teeth was all the protection we needed to dash into a burning building – yes, that's how firemen used to do it. All the tough stuff has been worked out by a slew of brilliant minds. Even Leonardo da Vinci pitched in at one point. Today, a variety of dust masks exist to keep you breathing easy in a variety of conditions.

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Dust masks come in a wide variety of styles and colors. As long as the one you choose is approved by NIOSH, you will receive the expected protection.

Dust mask features to consider


Since masks are designed to filter out different substances, the first step in picking out the one that is best for you is knowing what you need to keep out of your lungs. Are you going to be sanding wood, painting, working with chemicals? Luckily, there aren’t as many options as you might think because all the different hazards you breathe in can be separated into two broad categories: airborne particles and vapor.

Particles: This type of mask is very effective at filtering out microscopic particles from the air. Particle masks approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) can filter out particles as small as 0.3 microns (one millionth of a meter). To put that into perspective, the width of human hair is roughly 55 microns. Particle filters remove, dust, pet dander, pollen, mold spores, and other fine particulates. These masks do not work on gas or vapor. And these masks might not be suitable for excessive or highly toxic dust.

Some particle masks are washable, but these do not filter as effectively as disposable masks. Washable masks are tailored for lighter-duty situations, such as gardening or other outdoor activities. Many masks claiming to be "washable" also have a replaceable filter.

Vapor: This type of mask utilizes activated charcoal to filter out dangerous vapor. Activated or oxidized (combined chemically with oxygen) charcoal is an extremely porous material with incredible absorptive power. It’s effective at removing paint and chemical fumes, odors, perfume, and other gases. Some vapor masks have a pre-filter that also removes airborne particles. Additionally, some of these masks, called powered air-purifying respirators (PAPR), have a small fan that propels air through the filter to help ease breathing.

Dust mask ratings

N, R, and P are the three designations by NIOSH regarding the ability of a particle filter to resist oil.

  • N means “not resistant to oil.” These masks should not be used if there is oil mist in the air.

  • R means “somewhat resistant to oil.” These masks should be used no longer than eight hours in a work area containing oil mist.

  • P means “strongly resistant to oil.” These masks last the longest in an environment containing oil mist.

The second way dust masks are rated is with one of three numbers: 95, 99, or 100. These numbers denote the efficiency of the filter.

  • 95 means the mask filters at least 95% of airborne particles in a worst-case scenario.

  • 99 means the mask filters at least 99% of airborne particles in a worst-case scenario.

  • 100 means the mask filters at least 99.7% of airborne particles in a worst-case scenario.

The above letters and numbers are combined to offer the consumer a total of nine different options when it comes to particle masks: N-95, N-99, N-100; R-95, R-99, R-100; P-95, P-99, P-100.


No matter how great a dust mask is, it’s only effective if it fits properly. See below for some tips on fit. If it’s impossible to get a proper fit, you might need to try a different size – most masks come in small, medium, and large – or purchase a different model.

"Did you know that bacteria and viruses are particles? A NIOSH-approved dust mask can filter out most bacteria. Unfortunately, since viruses are about 100 times smaller, they can still slip through."

Disposable vs. replaceable

Another way dust masks are differentiated is whether they’re completely disposable or have replaceable filters.

Disposable masks: These masks are designed to only be worn for a limited amount of time before being discarded.

Replaceable cartridge/filter: A mask that has two parts – a body and a cartridge/filter – is designed to be a little more durable. When the filter becomes unusable, it can be replaced. The whole mask doesn’t need to be discarded.

Some signs that your disposable mask or replaceable filter needs to be discarded include the following:

  • Visible signs of damage on filter (folds, cracks, tears)

  • Soil inside mask

  • Difficulty breathing through mask

  • Strange odors or unpleasant smells when wearing mask

  • Wet mask


Half mask: A half mask covers the nose and mouth, leaving the rest of the face unprotected. If you’re working in an environment that has no contaminants that are harmful to eyes or skin, you only need a half mask.

Full-face: A full-face mask protects the eyes and face from potentially harmful substances, such as muriatic acid fumes. If you’re working in an environment that contains contaminants that could be harmful to eyes or skin, you need more protection than just a filter to breathe through.


Always check the packaging or manufacturer's instructions to be sure, but when in doubt, disposable dust masks are only good for one use. If the masks have been stored in direct sunlight, have gotten wet, or have been exposed to dust and debris, check to make sure there is nothing on the inside of the mask and no visible signs of damage.

Replaceable cartridges/filters have an expiration date. Opened cartridges/filters should always be stored in an airtight package or container. Cartridges/filters that have not been stored properly should not be used. Before every use, inspect the body and the filter per the manufacturer’s instructions to ascertain if the mask is still safe to use.

Dust mask prices

Dust masks are not an expensive item. You can expect to pay between $1 and $80, depending on the type of mask. In short, the longer a dust mask is designed to last, the more it will cost to purchase.

Disposable dust masks cost a dollar or two apiece.

Washable dust masks for light duty cost around $10 to $20. Washable masks with replaceable filters can cost up to $60.

Full-face dust masks with replaceable filters can cost up to $80.

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Did you know?
Except for the washable variety, you can’t clean a dust mask. If a dust mask becomes soiled or damaged in any way, it is unusable.


  • When you put on your mask, make sure the straps aren’t twisted or crossed – one above the ears, the other below.

  • Be sure the mask covers both your mouth and nose. If there’s a metal strip, shape it to your nose.

  • When you’re certain the mask is in place – snug on your nose and chin – place both hands over the mask and breathe in and out. If the mask is working properly, it will collapse a little when you inhale and bulge a little when you exhale.

  • If any air slips out around the edges. Readjust the mask and repeat the breathing test.

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Despite all the regulations, there is no sizing standard among various dust masks. If you aren’t having success with a particular model or brand, you might need to try a different mask, one that’s better suited for the structure of your face.


Q. What is dust?

A. Most people tend to think of dust as a light coating of dirt that settles on unused surfaces. In reality, it's a little more than that. Dust comprises a wide variety of particles, such as animal dander, soot, smoke, hair, sand, insects, and more. For the most part, it’s invisible to the human eye. There could be up to 100,000 particles of dust in one cubic inch of air, with each piece of dust carrying thousands of germs.

Q. Can I grow a beard?

A. Sure. Just know that if you have a beard, you won't be able to wear a dust mask because it will make it impossible for you to get a good seal around your chin.

Q. How often should I perform a fit test?

A. A fit test – placing both hands over the mask and breathing in and out to see if there are any leaks – must be performed every time you put on a dust mask. It doesn't matter if you only lifted it up for a second to take a drink. You must do the test again.

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