What is the Difference Between Level 1, 2 and 3 Face Masks?

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Choosing the right type of face mask has never been more crucial than now in your purchasing processes in the lab. While face masks may be hard to find, don’t simply go with the cheapest or those available in the largest quantities. Take your time to find one that is the right grade for your application, and you will ensure you get the safest protection possible, and don’t skimp on grade.

Surgical masks are generally graded through ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials), who publish technical standards for products, materials, systems and the likes. There are currently around 12,000 ASTM standards in use.  

Not all masks are graded so make sure you check that your product of choice has an ASTM grade or is from a reputable manufacturer. This will ensure you are comfortable that you have the appropriate level of protection, and thus minimising the risk in your workspace, whether it be surgery, pathology, or research. 

Ensure you find masks which have the ASTM level printed on the box, with the level of fluid resistance (see table below) shown. If this is not present, the masks are non-compliant with Australian standards and regulations. 

Which is which? 

Level 1: Low barrier protection 

  • General use. Not used for aerosols, spray or fluids. 

Level 2: Moderate barrier protection 

  • For low to moderate levels of aerosols, spray and/or fluids 

Level 3: Maximum barrier protection 

  • Used for high risk of fluid, spray or aerosol exposure 

Testing Metrics: 

Masks are tested to five criteria: 

  • Bacterial Filtration 
  • Particulate Filtration 
  • Fluid Resistance 
  • Breathability 
  • Flammability 

The more resistance the mask offers to any of these criteria, the higher the grade, and thus the higher the protection. Higher protection masks are more suited to surgery or working with chemicals, however, will not protect against vapours, which will need a respirator. 

Ensure you are thorough with your research to find the most appropriate PPE when procuring.


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