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Disposable Vs Reusable Half Face "Masks"

In order to help employers (or individuals) select between reusable and disposable masks, we’ve put together our thoughts and experiences in this article to help guide you through the decision process.

Firstly, their affectionately known common terms…

Disposable – A Filtering Facepiece, FFP3, a “paper mask”.


Reusable – A Half Face Mask, “A Bung”, Elastomer, respirator. EN140:1998

In this article, we’ll stick to the most common types, a reusable half face respirator with a P3 filter and a disposable FFP3 mask.

Despite them looking rather different to each other, they share a considerable number of similarities…

· Identical in how they function.

· Rely on a seal to the face.

· Have a continuous wear time of up to one hour.

· Require the wearer to be clean shaven where the mask contacts the face.

· Require a face fit test.

· Offer an assigned protection factor (APF) of 20

· Neither “stop all dust” – a common misconception!

*Functionality – Both function on the same principal; these tight-fitting devices rely on achieving an efficient seal to the wearers face. When the wearer inhales, they create a negative pressure within the facepiece thus drawing air though a mechanical filter membrane (sometimes incorporating electrostatic filtration). Although all masks don’t fit all faces!

As with anything in life, you get what you pay for! Generally speaking, great products perform well, with lesser products often performing unfavourably shall we say.

Anyway, onto their strengths and weaknesses, or pros and cons…

  • We’ll get it out of the way first, cost! Unit cost for an FFP3 is approximately ten times less than that of a reusable device. Value for money however is a different matter; when worn on a more frequent basis, reusable masks pay for themselves many times over in a relatively short period of time.

  • An FFP3 mask will offer either valved or non-valved options whereas reusable will almost always have exhalation diaphragm. This is an important consideration when considering the protection offered to others, especially in clinical / medical or healthcare settings.

  • Reusable devices MUST have a monthly inspection and maintenance regime*, a disposable mask does not! Also consider the use of a “28 day” maintenance free device if inspection poses a problem. (*see our RPE inspection guide ),

  • FFP3 masks are essentially an environmental disaster!

  • Reusable devices require cleaning / decontamination (and storage) following use. Whereas a disposable mask, you guessed it, is disposed of following use (sessional or shift, depending on sector and hazard).

  • Reusable masks are typically available in a range of sizes, disposable mask are typically not.

  • Reusable devices will typically give better outcomes when fit tested; thus, fitting a higher percentage of the workforce and arguably offering increased levels of protection (though neither can claim to offer greater than APF20).

  • You need to ensure that the wearer looks after a reusable device, not so significant for a disposable device…. A brand-new device is used every time / day (or should be!). A reusable device is more likely to “fault” as there are more components that can be “unloved” or defeated.

  • A disposable mask will only ever protect against particulate; reusable mask can accommodate both particulate, gas / vapour and combination filters.

  • Reusable masks can severely hamper verbal communication (muffled), disposable not so much.

  • FFP3 mask are generally much lighter and more compact; conversely, reusable masks are heavier and often bulkier; many deem the former more comfortable to wear but that is down to personal preference.

  • Bulkier reusable devices may impact the line of sight more and are typically less compatible with protective or corrective eyewear (the face size / shape also impacts this).

  • Reusable masks may look more industrial or “offensive” to some third parties Vs disposable masks; that said, we’ve all become more accustomed to seeing people in masks over the past few years!

  • With most reusable respirators, it is possible to conduct a robust “pre use inhalation check”, this is not the case for disposable devices (a pre use exhalation check is far from definitive on an FFP!).

  • For sectors and activities where gross contamination is foreseeable, a disposable mask offers time saving and can decrease the chances of secondary contamination.

  • To achieve the minimum European standard specification, a reusable mask has to achieve a higher particulate filtration efficacy Vs an FFP3… this can have an impact on inhalation resistance.

  • Almost all reusable masks will have great elasticity and adjustment to the straps, not so much for disposable devices.

  • Thin straps on disposable masks are less likely to resist movement during physical activity, especially is the wearer has conditioned hair or a “shiny head”. Most reusable devices will have a grip or harness to keep the upper strap positioned on the crown of the head.

  • Donning - Personally, I find it easier to consistently don (put on) a reusable device, some disposable masks can be somewhat fiddly, leading to inconsistent donning without robust user training.

  • In use, bulkier reusable devices could restrict movement or become obstructive when working in tighter workspaces.

In closing, a big part of selecting the correct mask is down to circumstance and individual preference; for me, as a wearer, 90% of the time I’d select a reusable respirator over a disposable mask. As a fit tester, I’d have more confidence in a respirator to give me higher fit factors… but that’s just my opinion!

As per usual, this is intended as good basic advice; always consult the manufacturers instruction and do take care and consideration when selecting “adequate and suitable“ RPE.

For any questions regarding RPE or face fit testing, please don't hessite to get in touch.


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