The Dirt on Dust Masks

The more work you do without protection, the more damage you’re doing. So if you’re producing dust or using finishes or solvents, use the proper mask.

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How to Choose the Right Breathing Protection for Your Projects

Much DIY work produces dust and/or fumes. I’s essential to protect your lungs from both; there’s no amount of dust or vapor that’s good for your lungs. And the harm is cumulative. The more work you do without protection, the more damage you’re doing. So if you’re producing dust or using finishes or solvents, use the proper mask.

Certified Filter Ratings

A mask’s certification denotes its filtering efficiency and what it’s capable of filtering. There are three letter ratings—N, R and P—pertaining to a mask’s effectiveness at removing airborne oils or vapors found in solvents and finishes.

N = Not resistant to oils

R = Somewhat resistant to oils

P = Strongly resistant to oils

The number following the letter indicates the percentage of particles that the mask is capable of filtering out. An N95-rated mask, for example, filters out 95 percent of airborne particles, but it offers no protection against airborne oil-based particles found in solvents and finishes.

Bargain Masks

Don’t buy a mask with a rating of less than N95 or one that shows no rating at all. These cheap masks may keep you from inhaling insects or small birds, but they offer no protection against airborne particles.

The Bottom Line

Consider the level of protection you need for the job and choose your mask accordingly. If you’re just doing dusty work, such as sanding wood or drywall, a disposable N95 mask is a fine choice. If you’re working with paint, finishes, adhesives, mold or lead paint removal, go for a reusable cloth or cartridge mask with activated charcoal as part of the filter. A note of caution: If you have a beard, no mask will perform as advertised.

For more, read this article: How to Choose a Dust Mask

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Standard Disposable Mask

If you’re sanding wood, drywall or doing some demolition work, this disposable mask will serve the purpose. They’re about $2 each. Make sure the ones you buy have a rating of at least N95.

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Disposable Mask with Exhalation Valve

This one covers the same types of dust as the standard disposable mask. But if you’ll be wearing your mask all day or doing physically demanding work, spring for a mask with an exhalation valve ($3 each). The valve makes breathing a lot easier. It’s well worth the extra cost.

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Reusable Dust Mask with Replaceable Filters

If you’re doing lots of work that requires a mask, consider a reusable mask. These reusable fabric masks are far more comfortable than the disposable type. This model M2 mask from RZ has an N99 rating and costs about $35.

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Reusable Cartridge Filter Mask

These are the most versatile masks. The replaceable filters are available for different things: HEPA for dust, or a chemical filter for VOCs (volatile organic compounds). If you’re applying finishes or working with solvents, get a mask with replaceable activated charcoal cartridge filters. A cartridge filter mask costs about $30. This mask has a P100 rating.

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