Tips for Selecting the right face mask for any emergency

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Face Mask
I have an irrational fear of falling into an ice-covered lake, being trapped, and drowning. I can easily imagine that feeling of slowly suffocating and being helpless to stop it. When I’ve had to wear a face mask, I get the same feeling, and I really, really don’t like it.

A lot of us have face masks in our survival/emergency kits and plan to use them in case of a fire, an epidemic, or some other crisis that makes breathing either difficult or dangerous, but have you ever actually worn one of those face masks for an extended period of time? Well, it’s not a lot of fun. There is that feeling of semi-suffocation and it’s not comfortable at all.

One of my readers, Maureen, had to wear a face mask recently and suggested this tip: start getting some practice wearing a mask so you’ll be better prepared when it becomes necessary. I think that’s a great suggestion. Face masks can be quite uncomfortable, especially in heat and humidity.

So which types of masks should you buy and practice wearing?

At the lowest level is the inexpensive dust mask sold by home improvement stores. When my husband has to work in attics, he always wears one of these to avoid breathing dust, insulation, pollen, and other stuff in the air. He’s told me the masks get really hot, dirty, and sometimes they absorb so much sweat that it stops the air flow. These masks are disposable and don’t protect you from very small particles. Even though they are lightweight, they still take some getting used to.

A step above the dust mask are particulate respirators, an N95 or higher. These are also inexpensive but are designed to give you more protection from microscopic particles in the air. They can be slightly fitted to the face but won’t work very well if you have a mustache or beard. This is the type of mask that was recommended back during the swine flu scare a few years ago. However, there are better choices that will give you more protection from viruses.

By the way, during various flu scares, the FDA has recommended these respirators:

  • 3M Particulate Respirator 8670F
  • 3M Particulate Respirator 8612F
  • Pasture Tm F550G Respirator
  • Pasture Tm A520G Respirator

Moving up the scale, you’ll find heavy-duty respirators sometimes worn by painters and other workers who come in contact with lead, asbestos, pesticides, and some airborne viruses. These aren’t as expensive as you might think, ranging in the $20-30 range. They definitely give you more breathing protection but leave the rest of your face exposed. A good pair of goggles will protect your eyes, and should be a part of an emergency kit anyways.

An excellent, affordable, lightweight option

I recently learned about the Readi-Mask and promptly bought four of them for my family. It’s super easy to put on and protects your eyes with a medical adhesive seal as well as providing breathing protection. These are lightweight and so easy to put on, even for kids, although you’ll need to make sure the mask is completely sealed around their mouth, nose, and eyes.

Another lightweight version is the ZWZCYZ fabric mask. I purchased one of these so I could make a DIY version of a face mask with eye protection. It doesn’t have the same filtering capabilities of the Readi-Mask.

Think about where you might be when a fire breaks out and keep these masks in those locations. Suggestions: in your glove box (car fire, driving through a wildfire area, etc.), emergency kits, and bedside table.

What about a gas mask?

Finally, gas masks. I get a lot of questions about gas masks and whether or not they are worth the purchase. Gas masks can be purchased online, including Amazon, for under $30 each. Like a lot of emergency equipment, it can’t hurt to have one of these for each member of the family since they are so affordable. The kids’ version is about twenty bucks.

Frankly, I think the worst thing about gas masks is their appearance. If you’re a Doctor Who fan, I’m sure you remember, “The Empty Child” episode! (Still gives me the creeps.) However, an Israeli civilian gas mask runs under $30 on Amazon and for the money, you are protected from nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) elements.

A very important fact to know about the Israeli civilian mask is that the filter is good for a limited amount of time. Some filters are only good for about 15 minutes. That gives Israeli citizens time to get to the nearest bomb shelter, theoretically. Plan on using this mask strategically or look for filters that fit the mask but have a longer filter life.

There are valid reasons for buying gas mask, especially if you live near a nuclear power plant. I’m not paranoid where nuclear power is concerned,  but the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster in Japan taught me to be a little more wary, which is why we now own potassium iodide tablets and have taken other precautions, just in case. (We live about 40-50 miles from a nuclear power plant.)

A family of 4 will spend $120 or so for inexpensive Israeli gas masks. I’d say this falls in the category of, “Better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.”

If the thought of buying gas masks freaks you out completely, I understand! A good quality respirator will meet your needs in all but the most extreme events. Whatever you buy, do wear it for at least an hour and have the kids practice wearing them, too. When all hell is breaking loose and the adrenaline is racing through your system is not the time to put on a face mask for the first time!

So which masks should you buy? I’d skip the dust mask. It’s pretty useless except for short-term use when the main issue is dust and pollen. For not much more money, you can get a higher quality N95 mask, and in that case, I’d recommend the Readi-Mask, although it’s a one-time use only item.

Gas masks? That’s up to you and your assessment of potential risks. They would come in handy in far more emergencies than just the Big Three: Nuclear, Biological, Chemical.

Do you have experience with using any of these types of masks? Do you have a particular brand to recommend?


20 thoughts on “Tips for Selecting the right face mask for any emergency”

  1. Half Acre Heaven

    Great Article! We had huge wildfires and an inversion during the month of September, which left us with hazardous air conditions for about a month. Most of the big-box and hardware stores were repeatedly selling out of N95 and higher masks. And hospitals and clinics ran low too. People couldn’t believe it. I always kept them around for cleaning out the chicken coop (because chicken poo lung mud==eeew) and had a few stashed in our emergency gear, but talk about hard to keep the kids from taking them off. We finally just resorted to staying indoors unless it cleared up for a few hours. It was one of the items I just tossed into the gear box but never imagined using.

  2. Great Article!
    We use 3M 7000 series masks on the farm for high dust and chemical related chores.
    Five dollar N95 masks don’t really filter that well and eye protection is just as important (think pink eye or chemical splash).
    The best thing about any high quality mask is the availability of job specific filters that work!

    If your worried about cost, how much are your lungs and eyes worth?

  3. A good introductory piece but I hope you’ll let me add a few additional bits.
    1) Gas Masks (the technical term is Full Face Negative Pressure Respirators) must be individually fitted to be most effective. They must also have the correct cartridges. Many different types of cartridges exist for any number of tactical and industrial applications. Also manufactures make training cartridges don’t confuse these with operational models and know the color code banding on the cartridges from the country of origin for your respirator. Do some basic research and know what you are buying. OSHA, CDC, and NIOSH have information that may be helpful in making an informed choice.
    2) Respirators don’t generate breathable atmosphere. Weird but some folks don’t know that. If you are entering into an oxygen deficient atmosphere you are still going to be in trouble with or without your mask.
    3) Cartridges actually become better filters the more they are used because they are actually clogging up with the agent they are designed to filter. Two things follow: know how long your filter is good for and also be aware that the cartridge may itself be a hazard the longer its used. For example, in radiological emergencies the filter is collecting radiological particles; as these particles build up in the cartridge, it gets progressively “hotter”.
    4) Like anything practice with your equipment. Wearing a mask is a lot different than having to do work in a mask. The first responder team I commanded regularly trained with this gear and every once in a while someone would freak out and rip the mask away for fear of asphyxiation. Obviously a bad thing in a training environment, potentially fatal in an actual emergency. Know how you and those who are with you will react by practicing.
    5) Because of limited cartridge life know when to don and especially how to doff your respirator. You don’t want to become a causality because you exposed yourself to the agent that collected on your respirator while you were taking it off. Know how to decon.
    6) Contrary to what some in the tin foil hat crowd will tell you; first responders are there to help. We aren’t after your guns (well at least not in my hometown here in flyover country), we haven’t been paid off by the UN, the Illuminati, the Trilateral Commission, etc and we don’t want to relocate you to FEMA concentration camps. We live in the same community you do. We have friends, family and homes there. We want give you the best information we have about whether to shelter in place (bug in) or evacuate (bug out). But if you still don’t trust the advice just remember – TIME, DISTANCE, SHIELDING. Minimize time in contact with the agent and maximize your distance and shielding from it.
    Thanks for letting me have my two cents and keep prepping.

    1. So in saying that, which do you recommend that had a longer filter life etc for our emergency kits. By the sounds of it, none will keep us alive.

  4. If you really want to test a Gas Mask do what we did In our military training. WE would put on our G-mask, then enter a room that is filled with CS gas ( you can feel the tingling on skin from it!) then be required to remove your mask and give name ( we added rank to ours “Sir” !) The first breath you take in will stop you there and you got to leave the room to flush your head, eyes and mouth.

    that was 1970 at Ft Riley Ks, and there are times today I will still smell that gas!

  5. Get a full face respirator for everyone in your family. Get a good one like those 3m 7000 on Amazon for around 170. Yes a little pricy, but better for general use than a Israeli nbc masks. You can get cartridges for nbc stuff if you really need it. For germ use you can get a n95, or better yet a p100 filter for 3-4 bucks a pair. Get your filters with the p rating instead of the n rating. Better resistance to oil intrusion, which means better resistance to water droplets that carry ful, entero d68, ebola, ect…… A lot of these viruses and germs can enter through the eye and a full face works much better than just goggles.

  6. I’m really confused. I like the idea of the ReadiMask, but I want something that isn’t a one-time use mask. Is there something else like it that can be reused?

  7. If your considering a Military Style Gas mask.. Perhaps even a MOPP (Military Protective over garment.. Let me give you some insights

    The masks you generally see M17 or must used the strength of your own lungs to draw air thru the filter medium.

    For Military Units that are actually reasonably expecting such threats // They train.. Put the mask on several times a week and live in it for extended periods.. Their (Your) Cardiopulmonary System must become more fit, They must lean what movements and activities break the seal.. They must become disciplined not to deliberately break the seal..

    Why? Because such gear even just he mask alone quickly becomes hot and miserable.. your heart beat will increase lungs will in short order begin to ache just as if you had been running for miles..

    It is work.. That is another reason the relatively short lived Isralie Masks are short lived.. Because most people cannot physically sustain for very long .. Get out of the area.. and that’s about it.

    The other option is a Powered system.. They can be had starting around $400 per person.. With those you generally have a battery pack and an air pump forces filtered air to you..

    Much better but costly..

    So do not worry about short term use.. 15-20 min a healthy person can do that.. The elderly, Children, Sick folks.. Cannot and without a powered pressurized system they simply will not survive for long.

    1. Sorry I dropped a sentence..

      MOPP stands for Mission Oriented Protective Posture… (from memory) Postures run from 1-4 from just having the gear handy to having everything covered from mask, over garment, booties and rubber gloves..

    2. The Survival Mom

      Thanks for these insights! As an Israeli friend told me, the citizen gas masks are designed to function just long enough to get to a bomb shelter. Here in the U.S., though, most of us would need more time than that, since few buildings are designed to provide adequate protection.

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