The Difference Between Paint Masks

So here’s a little not-so-secret fact about working around the house: many, many things you do, from cleaning to painting to sanding, can get in your lungs and damage them. The fact of the matter is, if you can smell it, it’s in your lungs, and while a small amount of dust or sanded wood isn’t going to hurt you in the long run, you should never risk those precious lungs with any sort of extended exposure to nasty stuff in the air.

Paint Artist with Mask

This goes doubly so with painting and working with paint (such as sanding it), as paints are, of course, made of chemical substances that can often be toxic and damaging. Before you start fretting, however, know that there are not only options out there for keeping your lungs nice and functioning, there’s a whole minor industry built up around the idea that each specific job should have a specific mask that provides tip-top security for that type of work.

Because of this, however, another issue has arisen that even some of the most veteran painters get dangerously wrong: not all masks are safe with all kinds of jobs. Many people think that if something’s covering their mouth and nose, then they’re okay, but that’s simply not the case. As we mentioned, safety masks are made to specifically combat certain airborne particles, and if you get the wrong kind, you aren’t getting any protection out of that mask. Here’s a simple breakdown of what each kind of available mask does and what kind of work they are safe for, and we hope this info helps keep you breathing easy after your projects.

When buying these masks, the packaging will very clearly label what kind of mask it is, and looking at the further details on the packaging will give you an even more clear look at what kind of stuff it works against.

Surgical Mask
They might look like dust and paint masks, but surgical masks don’t really do much when used for construction or painting purposes. Why’s that? Well, it’s pretty simple really: surgical masks are designed to keep airborne junk in, not out. Surgical might block a slight amount of material, but really they’re designed to keep bacteria and viruses from entering the air from your mouth, so you’re actually going to end up trapping some bad stuff in the mask with you if you use it for any type of house work.

Odor Masks
As the name says, these are simply for odors. These are mostly used for cleaning unsavory things or for those that find even non-toxic paint and chemical fumes to be bothersome. For anything with toxicity, this will do just about nothing to protect you.

Dust Masks
These are appropriate when all you’re dealing with is non-damaging particles, such as wood dust or generic dust. They’re really just the basic level of filter, and they say that right on the package. Basically, if it’s chemical-based (even if you’re just sanding something chemical-based like paint), this is not the mask for you. Now, don’t do this yourself, but this writer has had this proven to him by using one when spray painting and then taking it off, at which point the inside of the mask was revealed to be covered in black paint residue. That’s not a healthy sign, we can tell you that much.

Particulate Masks
Slightly different than dust masks, these are sometimes also okay for sanding paint and using airborne paints that do not contain oil. If the paint contains oil, the mask will not provide any protection. These are usually disposable (as are the above masks), though they sometimes have the added protection of an exhalation valve. To determine what a specific particulate mask protects against, always consult the packaging before use.

Now, when it comes to just about any toxic and/or oil-based substance, the only true option is a respirator. You’ll know a true respirator because they’re much sturdier and are almost always made of plastics and rubbers (though there are some disposable ones that will clearly say they can be used for toxic materials). Respirators, however, are not all created equal, and there are three things to look at closely when purchasing.

1- Not all respirators protect against everything. In fact, few respirators do, and most are made to protect a user against one, two or a few things. Again, always consult the packaging, and always use a respirator that is appropriate for what you are working with. Some different things that specific respirators are made for include spray paint, pesticides, fiberglass particles, ammonia, acids and other gases.

2- Different respirators allow only one type of “cartridge” (or none, for the few disposable kinds), while others are “stackable” or interchangeable. If you think you might need to be protected against multiple kinds of toxic materials, you’ll probably want one that’s stackable (or at the least interchangeable), while single-cartridge types are fine if you’re just going to be exposed to one thing.

3- There are many different types of construction when it comes to respirators. As we mentioned, there are some disposable ones, which are not recommended for heavy or extensive use, but there are also half-mask, dual-cartridge and full-face respirators. Half-mask use only one cartridge on the side for added comfort and less of a chance of snagging, while dual-cartridge provide better protection from toxins and a longer life. Full-face, alternatively, protect the face as well with a screen of high-endurance see-through material that seals around the face. Additionally, different masks offer various degrees of “breathing resistance,” with the rule of thumb being that the less resistance (easier breathing), the cheaper the mask and the less the protection, except when you start to move up in price brackets, as some more expensive masks use better technology to achieve safety and the easiest breathing.

Of course, with all masks, one of the most important factors is getting one that fits. It’s kind-of hard to know what size mask you’ll need for your head without trying one on, so it’s recommended that you go to a hardware store and ask for assistance in choosing one if you’re unsure. All masks should provide a complete, unbroken seal around the face, or else the toxin-carrying air will simply slip in through the gaps, rendering your purchase mostly useless.

This might all sound like a bit of overkill, but trust us: it isn’t. Toxins in paints and construction materials are serious, and even a slight exposure to some can result in lasting damage. Your health is worth whatever mask you need to protect yourself, so do the research beforehand, use this guide, and get the right mask for the project. Your lungs and life expectancy will thank you.

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