Toolipedia: Respirator

Toolipedia: Everything you wanted to know about respirators

a respirator mask for painting | Construction Pro Tips
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What is a respirator?

There are a variety of breathing protectors on the market. Furthermore, they all have different functions and provide different levels of protection. In the context of painting we’ll consider the half-masked cartridge respirator. These respirators are considered negative-pressure respirators because you must inhale to get fresh air, as opposed to positive-pressure which supplies air.

They also have screw on filters or cartridges that filter out different types of particulates and/or different types of gases. The color on the cartridge (not the particulate filter) defines what type of gas it protects from. For painting the best choices are black (organic vapors) or yellow (organic vapors and acid gases). Finally, when it comes to the filter part, they can be rated R for oil resistant or P for oil proof.

Here are the basic parts of a respirator:

  1. Adjustable head strap
  2. Face Mask
  3. Canister Mount
  4. Air Valve
  5. Particulate Filter
  6. Gas/Vapor Filter

Most half mask respirators are worn by professional painters who are around solvents and paints frequently. However, many other trades and homeowners can use them as well. For many homeowners, a particulate filter will do fine for sanding and scraping and using a properly designated cartridge for paint.

How is a respirator used?

Operation basics

  • Ensure that the filter cartridge is the right filter for what you are working with and that the filter is new
  • Screw cartridge onto the mount and ensure that it is fixed properly
  • Put respirator on and adjust the head strap so that it is tight
  • Take a few practice breathes to ensure that air is coming through the valve and filters and not through the sides

Accessories needed:

  • Replacement filters


  • Be sure that you have the right cartridge for the right job
    • For example: a green filter (for ammonia gas) will not filter out organic vapors and are ineffective
  • Be sure that you replace the filters per manufacturers specifications – as they will be ineffective if they surpass the time
  • Be sure that when you breathe in that the air comes through the filter and valve – air that comes in around the mask will not be filter
    • Being clean shaven increases the fit of the respirator
  • If you begin to feel lightheaded remove yourself from the area and seek fresh air – the cartridge may be compromised

What are the different types of respirators?

  • Some cartridge respirators are full masked and have a built in splash guard
  • Some cartridges can filter out several different gases or vapors
  • Some cartridges are only particulate filters
  • Functional time can vary between cartridges

What makes a good respirator?

  • Strong negative-pressure valve
  • Comfortable fit
  • Light
  • Long protection time
  • Adjustable face mask

3M makes a high quality respirator. 

Respirator Tip

Be sure to check the air flow periodically during the work day to ensure good flow and fit. Do this removed from the work area. Ventilate the area as well to further minimize the risk.

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LeRoy Demarest
I have worked for over a decade as an environmental scientist working on an advanced bioremdiation clean up project. For the past six years I have also worked as an adjunct instructor for several colleges, both F2F and online, teaching a number of science courses. Finally, I have been freelance writing for a variety of publications on the topics of: gardening, environment, construction, science, science education, academics and technical work.