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A Complete Guide to Respirators and Face Masks for Auto Detailing

Dust, debris, chemicals..the list goes on. Simply put, face masks and respirators are devices that will keep you safe as a detailer, but there are a couple of basics to understand.

While any mask will some form of protection from dust, there are distinct differences that you should know about to detail safely under all conditions.

In this blog post I’ll cover the differences between a respirator and a face mask as well as provide a few recommendations for which one to select.

Face mask or respirator as a detailer? Here’s how to decide

In general, surgical face masks you may see people wearing (that loosely fits over your mouth, sometimes made of colorful fabric) are only going to provide protection against large droplets, and not considered respirator protection according to the CDC.

The fabric or paper dust masks like the one above I picked up in Lawn and Garden at my local Walmart also fall into the category of face masks (no NIOSH* approval) More on that in a minute.

The difference between face masks vs respirators

While a face mask (like a dust mask) is going to help block dust particles, sawdust, and other physical non-chemical particles, a respirator will protect you from chemical solvents, aerosols, oils, mold, and other more harmful airborne particles that may go unseen.

The level of protection your respirator offers depends on the type of filter used.

Simply put, you will need either a particulate respirator or a gas mask (like a dual cartridge-style mask) for auto detailing purposes since you’re dealing with dust, and other small particles or solvents and not just water droplets.

Look for NIOSH approval

You may have heard of N95 masks, or P95 masks, these refer to the oil resistance of the filter used. NIOSH (or the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) part of the CDC, approves these devices based on the manufacturer of filters, respirators, etc. and sets these standards.

Without going into much detail, these masks will have an N, R, or P is a filter rating class depending on the filter type. The number after the latter (like P95) simply means that it removes 95% of all particles 3 microns in diameter.

  • N = Not Oil Resistant
  • R = Resistant to Oil
  • P = Oil Proof

The CDC has a great breakdown of what these designations mean on their website here.

Deciding what type of respirator to use for auto detailing purposes

The type of respirator/filter/cartridge combo really depends on the products used, and what your detailing job looks like. Any restoration project or barn find where mold or another harmful chemical is likely to be encountered you definitely want to use a respirator.

Dealing with dust or something harmless? Try a particulate respirator

When detailing (unless you are spraying paint, or any aerosol for some reason), basic N95 masks are typically a safe choice for most debris types you will come into contact with, but are NOT resistant to oil.

Whenever dusting or removing cobwebs (for example) these types of masks should offer adequate protection under normal circumstances.

Cartridge-based respirators

If you tend to use stronger non-organic chemicals, I would recommend a cartridge-based respirator for most detailers, since it will offer the most protection. Respirators will generally provide a better seal as well.

Tip: Be sure you either use a respirator with a faceshield, or pick up some safety goggles to keep particles out of your eyes when detailing.

Particulate respirators: Perfect for particles, not gases

Even though some paper masks with filters may look like basic face masks, they actually are classified as a particulate respirators –those that filter out particles, but not gases or vapors.

As a detailer, a particulate respirator will never offer the same protection as a respirator rated for blocking gases (P and R), but are helpful to have in some cases.

If you find yourself cleaning out a vehicle that may have cobwebs or dust primarily in the inside, a face mask may be all you need. Dust is pretty harmless, but if you have allergies like I do, it’s worth wearing a mask.

Cartridge (or gas mask) based respirators: Protection against mold, solvents, and chemicals

Depending on the vapor or gas, a P or R type cartridge or canister will be able to block out most of the fumes that you are likely to encounter as an auto detailer. As you can see, these are color coded and NIOSH approved based on what they filter out or absorb.

Preview: 3M respirator filter and cartridge chart

Click here to view the complete chart 3M offers that outlines what type of vapors these filters protect against. Like everything, these need to be replaced with time.

Particulate cartridges vs vapor cartridges

When it comes to respirators (or anything with a filtration system), you have cartridges like Organic Vapor cartridges that do what you expect –absorb harmful vapors, while particulates will simply stop particles.

NIOSH color codes will indicate exactly what level of protection these cartridges offer. Magenta Olive P100 cartridges (for example) will offer the most protection from multiple gas vapors, and a good choice if you also work with paints, or any type of paint correction chemicals.

The cartridge type really depends on the products you need protection from, so it’s best to view a comparison chart.

My respirator recommendations for auto detailers

Keep in mind, the availability of these may be limited for a short time, but here are a few good options for auto detailers. Unless you are pulling out old, moldy vehicles from the woods, you probably don’t need a $300+ respirator and hazmat suit.

Again, always use common sense to find a respirator to meet your needs based on the chemicals or debris you are dealing with.

1. 3M Q500QL Half Facepiece Respirator – View on Amazon

This respirator by 3M (a great commercial brand) is a popular choice among detailers, and the company is really the standard for respirator filters. They make an entire line of these entry-level respirators, including some that are full-face.

While this one is a half facepiece, I highly recommend eye protection for certain jobs, so it’s nice that 3M offers eye protection for many of the 6000-series models.

The 6500 series are quite affordable, like this 6502QL that you can pick up here on Amazon for around $20 the last time I checked.

Key features:

  • Commercial quality (not meant for consumer use)
  • Intercageable NIOSH-approved 3M filters for any application (detailing or otherwise)
  • Cool flow valve for minimizing heat when used outdoors
  • Compatible with welding shield
  • Great for normal conditions

3M Particulate Respirator, 8577, P95

8577 respirator for detailing

If you’re looking a lightweight option, I really like this P95 particulate respirator, because while it looks like any of the other paper-based respirators, it offers more protection from paints than the standard N95.

It’s great for filtering out dust, debris, as well as viruses when used properly. Many P95 and N95 masks in this form have been scooped up since the coronavirus outbreak, so it may be more difficult to find these non-cartridge based respirators.

These sometimes can be hard to find, but feel free to check out the search results page on eBay or Amazon I’ve linked to here:

3M Mold and Lead Paint Remover Respirator – View on Amazon

This respirator kit is a great affordable choice if you ever come in to contact with mold, or other solid or liquid aerosols. It has a P100 approval rating as well.

This model also great for protection against organic vapors you may use on wheels and tires like degreasers

Key features:

  • Strongly resistant to oils
  • Replaceable P100 filters
  • Helps reduce odor of solvents, resins, and degreasers

3M Ultimate FX Full Facepiece Reusable Respirator – View on Amazon

Key features:

  • Full enclosure, and 6 strap configuration
  • Can be used with particulate filters and chemical cartridges by 3M
  • 3M cool flow valve
  • Lens is paint and stain resistant

Other higher-end respirators for detailing

Outside of 3M, there are several companies that make non-disposable respirators that you can find online as well. Below are a few more brands that are good choices.

If you detail every day, keep in mind that whatever respirator you select, you will need to select brands that will have replacement filters or cartridges available.

Here are a few other brands to consider:

  • Sundstrom (very high end)
  • Honeywell
  • Safety Works

Tips when using face masks and respirators

  1. Be sure to take breaks – oxygen intake can become an issue over time
  2. Look for an exhalation valve to avoid fogging up your glasses!
  3. ALWAYS select a filter or face mask with an appropriate level of filtration you need.
  4. ALWAYS check for NIOSH color approval for cartridges, as well as N, R, or P designation
  5. Wear glasses or a full-face respirator
  6. ALWAYS perform a seal check to ensure your respirator is working properly
  7. Looking for the most protection? Make sure it has a P rating.

The bottom line

While some detailers may traditionally take the subject of using respirators or masks that seriously, it’s not something you do not want to chance.

When detailing 5 days per week for 20-30 years, protecting your lungs is essential considering how much exposure you will likely have over the course of your detailing career.

While it may not be necessary for 90% of the detailing tasks you find yourself doing, a good cartridge-based respirator or a handful of particulate respirators is a good idea to have on hand in your detailing.

Baxter Overman is the founder of Carwash Country and has been been cleaning up dirty vehicles for nearly 20 years. Since 2017, he's helped thousands of beginners see better results by learning the fundamentals of washing and detailing. He's on a mission to make the car wash process more fun...and way easier.

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