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How to Decide What Type of Dust Mask I Should Be Wearing

How to Decide What Type of Dust Mask I Should Be Wearing

SoftSeal N-95 Respirator Face Masks

If your face mask doesn't seal to your face and remain sealed while you talk and work, then the mask has failed, and is allowing particles into your breathing zone. That's why SoftSeal N95 masks feature a medical-grade 360° silicone seal that conforms to your face to protect against these leaks, even through the speech and facial movements of jobsite conditions. The softness of the seal also provides for added comfort during extended use. The mask is constructed with several layers to provide maximum protection. The front layer is resistant to flame and fluid penetration, making it suitable for welders.

SoftSeal N-95 Respirator Face Masks

GVS Elipse P100 Half Mask Respirators

These Elipse P100 Half-Mask Respirators from GVS are designed to protect against dust particles, metal fumes, mists, oil and water vapors, and even some micro-organisms. They are suitable for everything from DIY use to commercial construction, including the demanding environments of metalworking and stonemasonry. Each mask includes two low-profile filters, which permit a wide field of view, and won't interfere with safety glasses, sanding shields and welding hoods. The compact shape of the filters also prevents them from getting bumped or snagged when you raise your arms for overhead work.

M2 Mesh Face Masks

M2 Mesh Face Masks

For woodworkers, the basic paper dust masks with rubber band straps have an annoying drawback: every time you exhale, hot, moist air is forced out of the gaps around the bridge of your nose, and your safety glasses quickly become fogged. RZ M2 Mesh Masks circumvent that problem with dual exhalation valves that direct air down and outward, away from your safety glasses.

M2 Mesh Face Masks

Trend® Air Circulating Airshield Pro

Protect your lungs, face and eyes during virtually any woodworking task with the air-circulating Trend® Airshield Pro. Its built-in fan circulates filtered air to prevent fogging, provide cooling and protect users from dust particulates down to 0.3 microns in size at a 98% efficiency rate. This model also meets ANSI Z87+ standards for eye-protection. It features an improved headband with a ratchet suspension and pivoting nape back strap for enhanced comfort, fit and durability.

Trend® Air Circulating Airshield Pro

Video Transcript
Whether we’re cutting, routing or sanding, wood dust is a constant byproduct of woodworking. The truth is, you can’t make things out of wood without making some dust, too. And it’s not just a mess to clean up.

Wood dust particles under about 100 microns — or 1/10th of a millimeter — are smaller than we can even see with the naked eye. They float in the air for a long while after sanding or machining, and they’re the most dangerous to our respiratory systems. At the least, fine dust makes you cough or sneeze. But this super fine wood dust can also create allergies, make asthma worse or even lead to nose, sinus and lung cancer.

So, what’s the best line of defense? Well, capture dust right at the source when you can, with a dust extractor, a shop vacuum or a dedicated dust collection system. But we all need a second line of defense too: by covering our noses and mouths with a good dust respirator.

It’s not hard to pick a respirator, but there are several categories, so let’s talk about the most common one first: these white, disposable dust masks. They’re the ones you’ll find at any home center or hardware store, and there’s really only a couple of things to keep in mind.

First, count the straps. If there’s only one strap, and you’re shopping for this at a dollar store or the pharmacy, this is not suitable for wood dust. Don’t buy it. The single strap doesn’t pull the mask tight enough over your nose, cheeks and chin, there’s only one thin later of filter media here. The package probably won’t even offer a disclaimer about how effective these are to use.

These are nuisance masks at best, and they don’t protect you for very long against anything. Instead, look for two straps, like these. That’s a telltale sign of a true dust respirator, and the two straps pull the mask securely in place on your face.

Two-strap respirators will have multiple layers of filtration, including a pre-filter layer for coarser dust and electrostatic or carbon filter layers to tap fine dust and odors.

This Softseal brand respirator, sold by Rockler, even has a soft silicone gasket that goes all the way around the mask’s rim to create a double seal and comfortable fit.

Some respirators will have an exhalation valve in the middle, and others won’t. When you wear safety glasses or prescription glasses, you’ll appreciate having this valve, which keeps moist air from creeping up and fogging your lenses.

And one other thing: you also need to pay attention to the numbers printed on the respirator. There will be a letter N, P or R, followed by the numbers 95, 99 or 100. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health — NIOSH — has created this simple system to help us know what the level of filter efficiency is. 95 stands for 95 percent efficiency at trapping harmful dust down to three tenths of a micron. 99 means 99 percent, and 100 is 99.97 percent. Any of these three ratings offer excellent protection against wood dust, regardless of the letter in front of the number. Aside from the white disposable respirators, there’s a second category of reusable respirators, too.

This style has a soft, flexible silicone or neoprene rubber mask with either one or two pleated filters mounted to it. And, there might be an exhalation valve. This newer style is made of soft mesh. It has a wide hook-and-loop strap to make it more comfortable to wear.

The advantage to these masks is that the filters are replaceable when they get dirty. Just pop out the old ones and install new ones. You don’t have to replace the whole mask. And, depending on the respirator, you may be able to buy other cartridge filters to protect you against other harmful mists, vapors, gasses or chemicals. So one mask with the correct filters in place, could serve all of your shop needs.

And here’s the third category of dust respirators. It’s a powered, air-purifying respirator. If you have facial hair like I do, particularly if you have a thick beard, it can compromise the seal of other respirators because they can’t make full contact with your face. But these can give those of us with beards the protection we need.

They go on like a hardhat over your entire head. And a fabric face seal with an elastic band fits behind your jaw and against your face and neck.

Up here, a motor draws outside air through these two filters and into the helmet. That creates positive air pressure inside, to keep the dusty air out. And, another benefit to these air-purifying helmets is that they can have an impact-rated face shield. So, they can take the place of safety glasses for some tasks.

So whether you go with a disposable, re-usable or powered dust respirator, any of these options will help you protect your long-term health in the shop. Just pick one, then do the right thing and get in the habit of using it — whenever you’re making sawdust.