A dust mask is worn in the same fashion as a filtering facepiece respirator or surgical mask, but it is dangerous to confuse them because they each protect against specific airborne dangers. Using the wrong mask for a job can present a significant and possibly deadly danger as many dust masks with widely varied levels of protection may look similar, and even masks that do not protect against dust at all. Misfitting masks are also a danger as they allow a material to bypass the mask entirely. A correct fit may not be as critical in masks that are intended to protect against splattering liquids or mists.
Dust masks do not protect against chemicals such as vapors and mists. For this reason, it is dangerous to confuse dust masks with respirators used as paint masks.
Dust masks are a cheaper, lighter, and possibly more comfortable alternative to respirators, but do not provide certified respiratory protection, and may be more susceptible to misuse or poor fit.
Some dust masks include improvements such as having two straps behind the head (one upper and one lower), having a strip of aluminum on the outside across the bridge of the nose that can be bent for a custom fit, and having a strip of foam rubber on the inside across the bridge of the nose to ensure a better seal even if the aluminum on the outside does not fit.
Do You Need a Mask?
The first simple question to ask is whether or not you even need a mask in the first place. While it seems like common sense to protect your lungs from dust, many people choose to forego masks because they can be pretty uncomfortable.
To determine whether or not you need a mask, you need to answer a few questions.
What kind of woodworking are you doing? If you’re cutting out some joinery with chisels, maybe painting a piece of furniture, doing a bit of hand-sawing, or otherwise doing very minor woodworking work, you probably don’t need a mask. You can wear one to protect yourself if you want, but the amount of dust you kick up with such small activities is minimal.
Conversely, if you’re going to be running a band saw, table saw, power sander, or other heavy piece of machinery, chances are you’re going to be kicking up quite a bit more dust. The more dust you’re putting into the air, the more likely you are to need a mask of some kind to protect yourself from that particulate.
Main Purpose Of A Dust Mask
The main purpose of a dust mask is to protect the wearer and prevent illness, more specifically preventing the development of respiratory illnesses. These types of problems can reduce the quality of life as well as its length.
Dust masks are most often used at work in hazardous environments where there is the risk of inhaling dangerous substances which can cause coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath or breathing difficulties.
Unfortunately, any long term exposure to dangerous chemicals and particles can lead to death. Even a few minutes of exposure can provoke illness and although the human eye cannot perceive these hazardous substances, they still represent a real danger to our health.
At the workplace, the employer is responsible for looking after the employees’ health and safety while working. If your employer, after assessing the health risks, chooses to use dust masks, then the selected dust masks should be worn even for small or quick jobs which don’t take more than a few minutes. Long term effects can harm your future health! Make sure you receive the proper training on how to wear and how to use correctly the dust mask.
Differences Between Masks and Respirators
It is a common misconception that respirators and masks provide the same type of protection. Respirators can help protect you while you breathe in by filtering out small and even microscopic particles in the air, whereas cloth and single use masks are more about protecting those around you from large particle droplets as you breathe out, cough or sneeze.
Simple cloth face masks and coverings do not form a tight seal around your mouth and nose, limiting their ability to protect you from germs that may be in the air, since particles can leak in around the edges. However, these masks still help to slow the spread of airborne viruses because they offer a barrier that helps keep germs and large particle droplets from reaching other people as you talk, cough or sneeze.
Contrary to masks, respirators are tested and approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a division of the Centers for Disease Control. For NIOSH to approve a respirator, it must be able to capture and filter particles of varying sizes, including those so small you can’t see them (like viruses and bacteria). Unlike cloth masks or surgical masks, respirators feature a tight seal to the face, and are made of a specially woven and statically charged fabric that filters 95 to 99.7 percent of all air particles as you breathe.
Paper dust masks are designed to reduce exposure to solid particles like dirt, silica and pollen. Dust masks are not National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)-approved disposable filtering facepieces. Dust masks are not true respirators and do not offer protection against hazardous dust, gases or vapors. If the dust mask does not have a valve in the front and is made of paper instead of non-woven polypropylene fiber, it’s not a respirator. These simple masks can be worn during activities like mowing, gardening, sweeping and dusting.
What to Consider
For the occasional quick sanding project or miter saw cut, a lightweight disposable mask should be sufficient. These are the least effective masks in terms of the size of particles they can protect you from, but they’re perfectly fine for quick jobs. Once they’ve become dirty and clogged, these masks need to be tossed away.
But if you’re going to be tackling larger projects that will be creating a substantial amount of dust, like sanding a large table, you’ll probably want something that is both effective and comfortable to wear for long periods of time, like a reusable fabric mask or a respirator.
You should also think about what kind of projects you’re going to be working on. Remember, woodworking projects can generate more than just sawdust. If you’re refinishing a piece of furniture, for example, you could be exposing yourself to chemical strippers, wood stains, or paint fumes as well. Make sure to carefully check the specifications and filtering capabilities of your mask before you purchase, otherwise you could end up lacking the protection you need, which would eliminate the point of a mask altogether.
Whether or not you already have a dust collection system in your workshop can also be a factor in the type of mask you can use. You’ll have to use your own judgment here, but if you already have a dedicated dust collection system in your shop, you may be able to get away with using a lighter-duty mask in instances that would otherwise require something more robust, like a respirator, or reusable cloth mask.
Types of Masks
There are a handful of different kinds of masks you can use for woodworking. On the plus side, since wood isn’t a horrible caustic chemical, you don’t generally need a respirator or fully enclosed mask. Wood particulate can be pretty small, though.
The weakest and worst kind of mask you can use is something like a disposable dust mask. We’ve all seen them; the white covers with the elastic band and the little metal piece across the nose. These masks are sold in every hardware store and grocery store with a home improvement department. They’re meant to be used for an hour or so, to protect you from the worst of “nuisance” dust, and then thrown away.
These aren’t full face-sealing masks, so particulate can still get through around the edges. They’re not very comfortable, because they’re not designed to be worn for long periods of time. They’re better than nothing, but they’re not much better. They also cannot be used to protect you from more dangerous substances, like chemical vapors, silica, or asbestos.
The only benefit they have is that they’re extremely cheap and extremely convenient. You can just snag a box of 50 off a shelf at the hardware store when you’re picking up other supplies, and they’ll last you for weeks or longer. They never need to be cleaned, since they’re disposable.
A step up from these kinds of masks are the N95 particulate respirators. These are still disposable masks, like these 3M masks. They’re a little better designed and a little more comfortable than the disposable masks up above. They’re softer, and they conform to the contours of the face more fully, which means they have more of a seal and can protect from more particulate in the air.
What Kind of Mask Should You Choose?
Your choice of mask depends largely on what you’re doing with wood and for how long you intend to be doing it.
Something like simple demolition or construction, where you’re running a table saw for a few minutes at a time and generating primarily coarse sawdust, is not going to generate a ton of fine particulate that can cause issues. You can use disposable masks or anything up to the MyAir style of mask and be perfectly fine. We’re biased and recommend the MyAir, of course, but any mask in that range is ideal because it has a good balance of comfort and protection.
If you’re working in a shop long-term, if you’re spending an extended amount of time working with sanders – and this includes floor sanders, which can kick up a lot of dust even with a vacuum system attached – or if you’re working with something that may have unknown particular, mold, or fumes, you may want something with better filtration. The Elipse mask linked above is a good choice, but there are dozens of other products in that same class that are equally viable options.
The chances that you’re going to need anything beyond that level of mask for woodworking is almost nonexistent. In fact, if you’re in a situation where you would need something like a closed-system powered respirator, you’re going to know it and wouldn’t be reading this article to begin with.