Gas Masks vs. Respirators: Key Differences Can Save Your Life

Guest post by Allison Goodwin, Pew Pew Tactical

While we often like to talk about firearms and other forms of bodily protection when SHTF, there’s another important thing that often goes overlooked–protecting your lungs. If you’ve ever been in a dust storm, a mildewed basement, or asbestos-filled ruin, you probably know just how uncomfortable breathing can be in these situations.

Breathing is important, to say the least, and that’s why so many preppers, from newbies to experts, are looking to invest in some exceptional respiratory protection.

A quick search shows that there are a lot of options out there, though, so which ones do you specifically need? What is the difference between respirators and gas masks? Is there a difference?

Don’t you worry–we’re going to talk all about that and more, so you can feel confident you’re buying the best equipment for your unique prepping needs.

Why Do I Need Breathing Protection in My Kit?

We know, we know–you’re probably already well aware of the many reasons to pack some way to filter the air in your bag or bunker. But for those of you just joining the wonderful world of prepping, we’re going to go over just why you should consider keeping a respirator or a gas mask handy.

The primary concern for packing breathing protection is to protect your throat, lungs, and sinuses (and maybe even eyes) from airborne contaminants. These contaminants can range from dust and pollen to radioactive isotopes and viruses, but none of them are anything you want to be breathing in on a daily basis, much less when medical supplies and aid may be scarce.

So whether you’re preparing for the next forest fire or the end of the world, breathing protection should be high on your list.

Gas Mask or Respirator: What are the Differences?

Chances are, you’ve seen examples of the two most common types of protection out there: the gas mask and the respirator. But isn’t a gas mask and a respirator basically the same thing?

In short, no.

While they may appear to do a similar job, gas masks and respirators serve very different purposes. Depending on why you’re choosing your protection, it may benefit you more to choose a respirator over a gas mask, or vice versa (or, y’know, you could have both!).


A respirator is designed to filter particles out of the air as you breathe in. There are different rating levels, which filter different sizes of particles.

If you’re going to go for a respirator, you might as well go for a mask with a P100 rating, which is capable of filtering out 99.97% of airborne particulates and is oil-proof. Most respirators you’ll find are only P95-rated, which is effective for 95% of particles and aren’t oil-proof. For a few extra bucks, it’s a lot more peace of mind to upgrade to a better rating.

Respirators, like this half-face respirator from 3M, are great for handling things like pollen, dust, smoke, mold spores, and pollution. They can be a single unit, like a surgical mask, but we recommend the half-face style with replaceable filters since you don’t have to get rid of the whole mask when your filters need to be replaced. You also can customize your filters, so you can stock a selection based on the protection you feel you need.

It’s worth noting that respirators only protect your nose and mouth from whatever is in the air. Your eyes and ears are still exposed, which is why a pair of goggles with a good seal and earplugs can be very helpful to keep on hand, too.



Gas Masks

If you’ve ever watched a war movie, or even an apocalypse movie, you’re probably familiar with the rubbery, bug-eyed, can-filtered look of a gas mask. In fact, gas masks are not hard to find but proceed with caution while shopping for one. Most surplus masks are no longer effective and can even contain icky things like asbestos in the filter. Not helpful.

There’s a variety of mask styles out there at a variety of price points. Depending on what you need, you can get a super-budget, but still-effective Israeli gas mask that offers NBC (nuclear, biological, and chemical) protection. You can also get fancy with some of the other options out there.

If you want some of that best-of-the-best gas mask action, it’s hard to beat the made-in-America goodness that is the MIRA Safety CM-6M.

This full-face mask offers a pretty much unparalleled field of view, seals tightly around your face, has a hypoallergenic anti-fog coating, comes equipped with a hydration system for your canteen or Camelbak, works with the standard 40mm NATO filter cartridges, and… it’s trusted by the governments and militaries of quite a few countries. This mask is CBRN rated, which means it’ll handle chemical, biological, nuclear, and radioactive protection–so you’re pretty well covered in the event of a dirty bomb.

As we can see, gas masks offer a lot more protection that respirators, but they also can be a little overkill when you’re only planning to sand your new bookshelf and don’t want to breathe in the sawdust.



Which Do I Need?

Really, only you can answer that question. Do you live in an area that gets frequent wildfires and want protection from the smoke? Are you building your bunker and getting ready for a reality that looks a little less emergency and a little more “nuclear-saturated wasteland?” Depending on your answer, your needs may vary.

Still need help answering that question? Check out this comprehensive, hands-on review of the best respirators and gas masks–and one really bad one.

Your physical appearance might also dictate your needs. For instance, our beardy readers may want to explore a hood-style gas mask, since the apocalypse waits for no man to shave. For those of you just joining us, remember that beards can prevent gas masks from sealing effectively.

If you’ve got kids (or a remarkably petite build), and adult-sized respirator or mask might not fit well. The half-face respirators above come in a few different sizes. You also can find kids’ sizes in some gas mask brands, like this small mask from Mestel Safety.

Final Considerations

No matter what route you choose, make sure that you know the limitations of your equipment and always follow manufacturer instructions for its use. Don’t forget to stock up on fresh filters or filter cartridges for your respirator or mask, and change them out as needed since they do expire.

Most importantly, check that any pieces of equipment you buy fits you well before you need it, and that it is stored properly where it can easily be accessed. When seconds count, you’ll be glad you did.

Do you keep a respirator or gas mask in your kit? If so, what kind do you prefer? Have any questions about buying breathing protection? Let us know in the comments below!

About the Author

Allison Goodwin is the Junior Editor of Pew Pew Tactical and resident apocalypse aficionado. She’s an apartment-dwelling prepper, ex-desert rat, and is constantly looking for a better way to organize her prepping supplies. Keep up with her and the rest of the Pew Pew Team on Youtube.


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