With the recent forest fires and now with a new virus spreading the globe, respirators are in more demand than ever. While purchasing a respirator may not seem that hard, making the right choice is a bit more difficult.
In this article, I will be going over which respirators are the best, how they work, where they can be purchased, and more. If you are in need of a respirator in Australia then this is the right place to look.
Before I go any further, however, it’s important to keep some things in mind. Firstly, no respirator will be effective if it isn’t worn correctly. Respirators MUST be worn correctly and properly fitted. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety has some information on how to correctly fit a respirator. I have also covered fit testing on a post about fine dust masks in another article.
This article covers information on respirators in Australia and is intended for general use (air pollution primarily). This article does not cover how to wear respirators or how to fit test. That information is included in this article about fine dust masks.
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor nor a respirator expert. This article has been put together after extensive research, and all of my sources are listed. Please refer to them for further information. If you notice any inaccuracies, please contact me here.
This article contains affiliate links. For more information, please read my affiliate disclaimer.
What Is a Respirator?
Oxford Dictionary defines respirators best by saying a respirator is ‘an apparatus worn over the mouth and nose or the entire face to prevent the inhalation of dust, smoke, or other noxious substances’. Although this may sound obvious, there is a lot of confusion around the differences between a respirator and a mask, and I hope to help clear some of that confusion up.
Very often, you will hear the words ‘mask’ and ‘respirator’ used interchangeably. Even I am guilty of doing this often! However, there is a big difference between the two. Respirators are made specifically ‘to protect you from inhaling dangerous substances, such as chemicals and infectious particles’ (CDC NIOSH).
A mask, on the other hand, is used to catch bacteria from the wearer’s mouth and nose. In other words, a mask does not protect the wearer but is rather used to protect people around the wearer from bacteria and droplets. Masks are often referred to as ‘surgical masks’ as they are worn by surgeons.
‘Surgical masks also protect other people against infection from the person wearing the surgical mask. Such masks trap large particles of body fluids that may contain bacteria or viruses expelled by the wearer’ (OSHA).
In short, when it comes to air pollution and viral protection, a mask is useless. Respirators are needed. Respirators will always come with some kind of rating, such as N95, FFP2, or P2.
Which Respirator is Best?
This is where it begins to get a bit more complicated. There are a lot of different respirators, and it can be hard to pick one. In this section, I will cover how to decide which respirator is best for you.
In Australia, there are three main reasons that you may want a respirator. One is for a work or DIY situation, involving potentially toxic aerosols. Another is for air pollution, especially when there is very bad air quality due to bush fires. Finally, respirators are recently being sought in Australia to protect from viruses.
The most confusing part about picking a mask is choosing between the different ratings. If you see ratings such as N95, KN100, R99, KF94, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed! There is so much confusion in fact, that I recently wrote a post comparing all of the different respirator ratings.
However, most of these ratings mean the same thing and are just ratings used in different regions of the world. Luckily, respirators in Australia will normally follow one of two rating systems, the NIOSH system, or the Joint Australian and New Zealand Standards system.
NIOSH Rated Respirators
NIOSH: How to identify a NIOSH rated respirator
NIOSH masks come rated as N, P or R, followed by a number. There are 95, 99, and 100 filtration masks. In other words, you can find N95, N99, N100, P95, P99, P100 and R95 masks (CDC).
The number reflects the filtration of the mask. NIOSH masks are rated for the number of particles at 0.3 microns that they can filter out. An N95 mask will filter out AT LEAST 95% of particles that are 0.3 microns in diameter. An N100 mask will filter out 99.97% of particles at the same size.
The letter indicates the masks level of resistance to oil. N rated masks are NOT oil-resistant, R is somewhat oil resistant, and P is strongly oil-resistant (CDC). For the vast majority of respirator usage in Australia, an N rated mask is adequate.
However, if you are working in a situation that requires an oil-resistant mask, make sure to purchase an R or P rated mask depending on the situation.
Australian & New Zealand Standard Respirators
Australia and New Zealand also have a joint standard on respirators. These respirators are found with P ratings, from 1 through 3. P1 respirators offer the lowest protection, while P3 offers the highest (Only P1 and P2 are available on half-face disposable respirators). Sometimes you will even find that masks have both a NIOSH N rating and an ANZS rating.
P ratings are a bit harder to understand than N ratings. ‘P1 respirators are generally used for only particles, and they won’t provide protection against bio aerosols or thermally generated particles. P2 respirators are needed for bio aerosols and thermally generated particles’ (Queensland Government).
In regards to filtration, P2 respirators perform very similarly to N95 respirators. The New South Wales Government goes as far as to call them P2/N95 respirators. In other words, both an N95 and P2 respirator will perform well for the majority of common-day situations.
When Do I Need to Wear a Respirator?
Bushfires are one of the biggest factors that make respirators needed in Australia.
Many countries measure air quality differently, and it’s important to know Australia’s standards. If you don’t know how to read AQI (Air Quality Index), I recommend reading this post about air pollution. Although the location is different, it contains important information for understanding AQI readings.
But what exactly do the numbers mean, and when do you need to wear a respirator? Unfortunately, there is no specific answer for that question. It can depend on a few factors, such as your age, health, and physical exertion. According to the NSW Government, these are the health risks.
It is up to you when to wear a respirator. However, if you start to experience symptoms such as a sore throat, bad asthma, and other respiratory conditions, then it is recommended to wear a mask. This Department of Health page has more information.
Following the tables above, a respirator on days above 150 AQI is advisable for everyone. For susceptible people, days over 100 AQI may also need a respirator.
Respirators for Bush Fires
With the recent bushfires in Australia, many people have asked whether or not masks are effective in protecting the wearer from harmful particles in the air. The answer is yes and no. MASKS are NOT effective. Respirators, on the other hand, can be effective at protecting the wearer from inhaling harmful particles.
However, a respirator will only be effective if it is fitted correctly. ‘P2 masks provide protection against the fine particles generated by bushfires, but only if used correctly and if a good fit is achieved’ (NSW Government Health). For more information on how to correctly fit a mask, please refer to this article.
For bush fires, you will want a respirator that is rated P2/N95 or greater. Any mask with a rating over P2 or N95 will provide even better protection against bushfire particles. If you are in an area that often has very high AQI in bushfire seasons, it may be worth investing in a full-face respirator with replaceable filters. These masks are often more expensive, but they provide significantly more protection and may be cheaper in the long run.
Respirators for Viruses
Respirators and their effectiveness against viruses is a very controversial topic at the moment. However, it seems to be generally accepted that rated respirators (N95+) will protect the wearer from viruses. However, the catch is that they only work if they are fitted correctly. Learning how to fit a respirator properly is something that requires professional training.
It is for this reason that many articles make headlines by claiming that masks do not protect the wearer from viruses. This is only partly true. The mask does protect the wearer, but only if the mask is fitted correctly with no leaks.
Where to Buy Respirators in Australia
There are a few different stores in Australia that sell respirators. However, generally, the best place to find respirators will be at your local hardware store. These stores stock respirators for workers and DIY workers who need them for their line of work.
Pharmacies will also often sell respirators. In times of bushfires, many of the state governments will supply pharmacies with respirators for local residents.
Lastly, many websites have a large stock of masks. Purchasing online may be the best option if you want a specific kind of mask (like reusable half-face respirators or fashionable respirators such as the Cambridge Mask), or if you need to order in bulk.
Amazon has the best range of masks, and is now in Australia. If you are looking for respirators then I recommend checking them out.
Respirator Buying Guide
When it comes to bushfires, a heavier duty mask might be better.
The most important key to remember when purchasing any respirator is to check the rating. Never purchase an unrated mask. Make sure to check for the NIOSH or ANZS rating, and make sure that you understand what that respirator rating means.
The next most important aspect to look out for is the size. A mask that doesn’t fit correctly will never provide good protection. For this reason, make sure to check the dimensions of the mask and make sure that it will fit well on your face.
When purchasing half-face respirators, it’s also important to consider whether or not you want a valve. Valves are present on respirators to prevent humidity from building up inside the respirator. However, they aren’t always a good option.
When it comes to air pollution (protecting the wearer), valve masks work well. However, when it comes to viruses, a mask without a valve is better. This is because it will not only protect the wearer, but also those around them.
Heaviest Duty Respirators (P100)
Reusable Masks (N95/N99)
Disposable Respirators (N95/N99)
In many countries like Australia, there has always been a niche group of respirator users and this group normally consists of people who have jobs that require them. However, with recent events respirators have become far more common in society, and even essential at times.
Unfortunately, this has lead to a lot of misinformation and many people feeling overwhelmed. Understanding respirators can be hard! I hope though, that this post has helped clear up a bit of worry surrounding the matter.
If you have any further questions, please feel free to ask by commenting on this post. I am happy to answer any queries!