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Because You Asked: Will A Mask Help Protect Me From Smoke During Wildfires?

An often-asked question as unhealthy air quality persists in much of Oregon is whether masks offer any protection. As is often the case, the answer is: It depends. Masks can create a false sense of security if not properly selected, fitted and used. Don't expect surgical masks, bandanas, cloth diapers (really, my dad always had one handy for mowing), or other common masks to protect you from smoke exposure.

Specialized masks called “respirators” might be of some benefit if properly selected, fitted, and used. The challenge is that respirators need to be the right size and worn the right way to be effective, and that is difficult for many people to do. This means that people who haven’t had help making sure the respirator fits and that they’re using it right might still be exposed to smoke -- even if they are wearing it.

Most people will find it difficult to use respirators. They can be hard to use in a way that actually protects against smoke because:  
  • First, you have to find one that is marked with the words “NIOSH” and either “N95” or “P100” printed on it, to be sure it’s the right kind.
  • Selecting the correct size can be difficult without training.
  • The fit of the respirator must be tested to make sure air does not leak around the sides. Leaking air means you aren’t protected from smoke.
  • Facial hair often leads to air leaks, making the respirator ineffective.
  • Respirators can be uncomfortable. Even healthy adults may find that the increased effort required for breathing makes it uncomfortable to wear a respirator for more than short periods of time. Breathing may be even more difficult for those with heart and lung conditions. 
Just to review, if you decide to use a respirator, make sure it is a NIOSH “N95” or “P100”. You’ll need to review how to use it with someone trained to pick the right respirator and show you how to make sure you’ll be protected.