Best Respirator Mask Explained – Use Only What You Need

Finding the best respirator mask gets very complicated very quickly: what filter on what mask? Read the short guide below to find the right mask for the job.

These are all great protection from viruses and are in stock as of today:

Retaining clips are getting hard to find. If you want to use my system of the outer N95 or P95 over the cartridge and you need a retaining clip, just get this mask. It has the clip and everything you need. You can also go directly to 3M. Here is one on ebay. Here are a number of retaining clips for the family.

If you cannot find a retaining clip, use tape. It does work, but you lose some surface area: not a deal-breaker.

The filter we are supposed to wear is “N95” or P95, which is the same but also traps oils in the air. HEPA or P100 is even better. These can be found in masks and respirator filters on this page. Sadly, many online sellers are out or are PRICE GOUGING, so I’ll be updating the products here.

For painters and protection from chemicals, there are many, many types of respirators for painting, we present some clarity: we’ll order a la carte.

Shown above:

  • the 3M mask that painters like me wear: this straps around your head is the respirator mask itself (this comes without filters) and
  •  a set of outer paper filters and a set of retaining clips to hold on the outer paper filters: these clip to some, not all, chemical cartridges (like this)
  • Full face mask: This is the best-selling a full face mask: protect eyes and lungs (singles may be sold out so buy multiples and share with neighbors). Read the full post on full-face respirators.
  • For particulates only which include most viruses and MOLD, get the absolute best filter for this. These attach to the 3M mask above.

If you’re unsure about the right filter for your toxin exposure, check the 3M chart linked here (pdf) and call your doctor. If exposure levels are not known, a fresh air tank system is recommended.


  • The EPA tells us here tells us to wear the “N95 mask”, the HEPA filter (P100), or the P95. “P” means that it also traps oils in the air, which the N95 does not. See the EPA’s chart here.
  • Both P95 and N95 filter out at least 95% of very small (0.3 micron) particles which include all viruses and bacteria.
  • For particulates only which include most viruses and MOLD, get the filter just for that. If unsure about the right filter for your toxin exposure, check the 3M chart linked here (pdf). If exposure levels are not known, a fresh air system is recommended.

Update March 2020: Sadly, there are some sellers gouging us on the shipping of N95 masks that filter the Coronavirus. The filters I recommend on this page do filter this virus (P95, and P100) and so far 3M has not changed any fees or prices. Also, the paper masks with the string seem to allow air in at the edges which the 3M respirator does not. Read about the sizes further down the page.

The cost? Happy surprise. So reasonable. The filters last and last if you care for them (see tip just below).

paint respirator mask very used
A dirty, very old respirator mask. Would you like your lungs to be like that?The Skinny: if you just want the bottom line…

• A very important tip: keep the opened filters in an air-tight container (as for food) because they absorb toxins 24/7 which will shorten even the best respirator lifespan. I use 2-3 layers of baggies for an air seal, plus a backpack for toughness. See the video at the bottom.

Having the best chemical filters on your respirator mask: This is a matter of life and death!

The respirator for painting and other toxic tasks that is shown below is widely considered to be the best respirator mask.

About the mask: Us painters mostly use the 3M Half-Face paint respirator mask, still available at last check (sizes and more below). It is a workhorse that we consider the best respirator for painting. It’s comfy and stays tight. In 10 years you’ll replace the straps. But the mask lives on. Price? Shockingly low.

About the types of filters: We like to stick with a variable filter system covering all our needs: painting, sanding, spray cans, etc. It is hands down the best respirator for spray painting with airless sprayers (read about sprayers). We always add the paper filter over it (see the kit linked above and combinations explained below).

Painter working with a high-quality respirator mask
Painter working with a high-quality respirator mask

• The outer paper filter traps latex particles that extend the life of the big dog filter below.

3 Configurations: Different pollutants are everywhere:  viruses, bacteria, dust, pollen, toxic particulates, toxic vapors, VOCs (read about VOCs), and so on. The combination I use solves all these problems for a painter:

  • Zero dust, high toxins? (high VOC paint, spraying anything, etc): use a chemical filter, no need for outer dust filters. This is for most toxins: study the 3M chart linked above if you are not sure it removes your toxins.
  • Viruses with no organic toxins, high allergies, and dust? (sawing wood, sanding etc): use dust filters only, save your expensive chemical filters
The best respirator for painting, in general, is this low-cost mask and combination of excellent 3M filters and it’s not going to break your bank. This is also the best respirator for spray painting as well as brushing oils, etc.
Workers with respirator masks
Workers with respirator masks

Respirator Mask Important Tips

First question: “Full face” or “half mask”? We use the half-mask which means it does not cover your eyes: just your nose and mouth. See all about a full face respirator mask if you want to protect your eyes and if you have allergies, that may be best for you. And if you are around a lot of dust or spray, that is for sure the best respirator mask for you.

The 3M Half-Face is always in my tool bag and comes in 3 sizes: Small: 3M 6100 for smaller women, the Medium: 3M 6200 for many regular folks (the mask 6200, not the filter also called 6200!), and the Large: 3M 6300 (I use large & I’m 6’1″).  They are comfortable and well made and the strap system does not slip off (other makers do). 

The plastic halter fits any head. The paint respirator mask itself comes without any filters—see the bullet list below about buying the filters.

• Note that 3M has a filter called “6200” and a mask called “6200”.  Sad!  But what we present all work with all the respirator masks shown on this page (except the disposable).

From 3M: The above 6100 (small), 6200 (med.), or 6300 (large) respirator mask can be used with:

  1. The absolute best chemical cartridge for many cancer-causing vapors—those nasty VOCs. (3M “Multi-Gas/Vapor” filter, see the 60926 in the chart at the very bottom). This filter has a non-replaceable HEPA paper filter over the cartridge (cannot be removed).
  2. A decent chemical filter (the 6002 filter, which is not for organics, but ok for bleach, etc). Yes, the filter and mask have the same number.
  3. To #2 above, you can add-on a life-extending a HEPA paper filter on top (lengthens the main cartridge’s lifespan by keeping it from clogging with dust). With that, you need to buy (only once) the retaining clip to keep the HEPA filter on top of the chemical filter. It’s very easy to change the outer paper as needed.  You only need one retaining clip for life.
  4. Cannot find a retaining clip? (It’s not necessary, but…) just buy the mask that comes with one.
  5. Or use a stand-alone HEPA paper filter (the 3M “p-100” for pollen, sawdust, sanding paint etc).

Painting bathroom tipsMy advice: adopt the 3M respirator mask system which can be configured just for what you need. Well worth the modest expense! This is 30+ years of painting experience talking.


If you missed it above:

  1. Small: 3M 6100 (many women and all children)
  2. Medium: 3M 6200 (most folks)
  3. Large: 3M 6300 (I’m 6 feet tall and use the large.)

One more thing about a high-quality respirator mask…

I have given this as a gift to others. It’s perfect for someone you care about who works around toxins. Tough guys normally think they can just breathe anything, but these toxic anythings often cause cancer: a painter or do-it-yourself-er cannot do without a high-quality respirator mask.

No, I’m not employed in any way by 3M !!

I just like that 3M filters snap on the mask in a very well-thought-out system.

You can watch my video at the bottom of this article to see how the system works together.

Key point: use an outer particle filter to greatly lengthen the life of your (more expensive) chemical vapor filter to keep the viruses and dust. More below.

What do I need to buy?

1- You need the mask (see above).

2- You need the right filters for the job (see below)

Different filters for different jobs: we keep on hand all the ones below. We’ll be covered no matter what we are doing, we will not risk our health for any reason!

Buy filters a la carte:

1. THE BEST CHEMICAL CARTRIDGE FOR THE MONEY: 3M’s 60921, which filters VOCs-carcinogenic organics (see chart below) and has the paper “Hepa” filter built-in. (Hepa is aka ‘P100’ better than N95 or P95). You cannot change the Hepa filter that is INSIDE the cartridge and you cannot add an outer paper filter. But this is the single best filter that you can get outside of the military! ( I hereby admit that do cheat and tape a HEPA filter on the outside to extend the lifespan of the cartridge! They need to give us this option! )

2. A GOOD CARTRIDGE FOR LESS NASTY VAPORS The 3M 6002 ( not the mask 6002 !! ) See chart below for what toxins are filtered. (This one CAN be used with dust filter below). Often unavailable.

3a. THE DUST FILTERS (Part 1): the filter itself: 3M’s 5P71 “Hepa” aka “P100” paper filter is excellent for viruses. allergies, and dust. Note that there are many chemicals in many types of sawdust (from composite “wood”) and this will do the trick.

3b. THE DUST FILTER’S Retainer Clip (Part 2) These hold on to the 6001 and 6002 Cartridges, but not the other cartridges. Single (pairs of) clips are sold out right now. This one is also sold out for now. My advice: hold on the ‘3a’ filter onto your cartridge with tape. I’ve done it, it works.

4. DUST FILTERS FOR USE WITHOUT CHEMICAL CARTRIDGE The 3M 2097, which is just for sanding, sawing or pollen, not made for vapors even though it says “Organic Vapor Relief”.

5. BUDGET OPTION: by 3M, a Particulate Respirator UPDATE MARCH 2020: Some sellers of N95 masks have set prices and shipping to gouge us since the Coronavirus hit. Very sad that people do this. This mask is decent, but a bit expensive. I would still go with the half mask and filters above. However, for dusty situations and in crowds, use this N95 mask with an exhaust valve so your breath will not fog up your glasses, (safety or prescription), and if you don’t wear glasses, they are better than the old-fashioned paper mask with no exhaust valve. But they are less effective than the filter/mask combinations mentioned above.

6. UNAVAILABLE FOR NOW… GET THE SYSTEM IN A KIT This has #2, #3and #4 on the above list. This has a good chemical cartridge, the filter also called 6001 for most nasty things (see chart below) and the outer dust filter and clip in one product: easy to get a good system in one place. Each respirator kit contains 1 pair of 6001 cartridges, 1 pair of 501 retainers and 2 pairs of 5P71 filters

Living room recently painted wearing a respirator mask

When to change filters?

You can tell when they need to be changed by your inhalations:  the difference between the old one you are using contrasted with a new one.

Filter for bleach?

If you clean with bleach, I feel that it’s best to get the one that filters everything including bleach as bleach is really quite dangerous. We know a lifeguard that died from years of adding “chlorine” to the pool.  Good to have it on hand. Also, you know, the coming Zombie Apocalypse.  So, there’s that.

Be sure to keep the chemical cartridges in an air-tight plastic bag as they will absorb toxins 24/7 and slowly degrade if exposed to normal air.  I keep my entire mask in a large bag and out of harm’s way so it gets no holes. The filters last for many years!

Disposable respirators?

All right if you insist, but consider our mother earth too…

There is a very good 3M respirator mask (see it here) that comes with a vapor filter and promises 8 hours of heavy vapor filtering or 40 hours of light vapor filtering.  But then you throw the whole thing away: seems a shame, but if you really are only going to do one job in your life, well, “you just have one job”.

3M 07193 Dual Cartridge Respirator Assembly

Sold out: see the full face masks here


For one time use. Promises 8 hours of heavy vapor filtering or 40 hours of light vapor filtering. Filters organic vapors (all VOCs) when spraying many types of paint.

The best respirator for allergies, dust, and sensitive eyes: 3M’s Mold Remediation Respirator. If you want to protect from most organic vapors at the same time, go with the excellent full face paint respirator. In our view, this is the best respirator for spray painting.

3M Mold and Particulate, The 7162 Full-Face Mask Respirator

Sold out: see the full face masks here

Protects face as well as lungs. Many people prefer this. Check the price here. You may need to buy multiples if single units are sold out.

For spray painting, oil paints, etc. … (with pre-filters and retaining clips) and you can add any 3M filter you like as shown above. Complete protection. 3M recommends this for spray painting lacquer, enamel, and pesticides. Certainly excellent for virus protection, as long as you have good filters described above.

Paint respirator mask filters: choose the one for your situation and keep them in an airtight container or bag as they absorb toxins 24/7.

The information here is true to the best of my knowledge but is not a substitute for a doctor’s advice. If you suffer from allergies or may be exposed to a virus or bacteria, consult your doctor.

I’ve written about the dangers of VOCs and there is a lot on the internet if you need more, but the bottom line is: don’t risk your health breathing modern products: use a good respirator mask.

Paint Respirator Mask Guidelines (2)

11 thoughts on “Best Respirator Mask Explained – Use Only What You Need”

  1. Hi Brad. We are clearing out our parent’s home that has had water leaks and mold galore. Which respirators? Do we need eye protection? Do we need to were disposable suits? I’m almost 70 and don’t want any more health issues.

    • Definitely protecty your lungs as well as your eyes. This is dangerous stuff. I had a friend who was also 70 and not protecting herself, she went to the hospital that day.
      Think about a professional company: it would be worth the savings if the cost of doing it yourself is your health.
      Also, if you can create a draft in one window and out the other, that will help. But it’s no excuse not to wear a respirator.
      For this kind of work, get the full face mask with excellent filters. Buy some extra filters and change them each time it gets hard to draw air. They really last a long time though. After it arrives, you’ll have time to get the outer filters (HEPA that are like paper and stop most mold spores) and the inner more expensive cartridge for any organic vapors that go through the paper. This is a good system that keeps the expensive filters from getting clogged. This mask is good for using bleach as well as many kinds of paint, etc.
      Good luck.

  2. Hi . My wife gets headaches from strong smells . Planning on painting inside of home with oil paint for all woodwork and doors . Will these filters block smell

    • Yes when wearing the filters suitable for the toxin, there is NO smell. It’s pretty amazing. But how many hours can you wear it? Oil takes a long time to dry and then weeks to cure. You’ll have that ‘fresh paint smell’ for a while. Have a look at Advance I discussed here. It’s water-based alkyd. Before this new chemistry, (Ben Moore’s) alkyd was only oil based, Advance looks just like oil and comes in many sheens.
      But if you stick with oil, ventilate well and seal off the areas you are working in from your wife’s nose!
      Good luck.

  3. Hi Brad–What a beautifully designed and informative site! Thanks! I am a lone parent of a 12 year old and I look after two 86 year olds…so obv I am concerned during this viral outbreak. I have ordered and received the 6100 (small half face) for my daughter and the 6502QL (Rugged Comfort Quick Latch) for the rest of us. The only filters I was able to get are the pink round P100 2097s. Will these work as well as the World Health Org recommended P95 masks? I used to spray paint window display props, and had a half face for that…I bought the N95 vented masks, but they seem so flimsy and have an incomplete seal. I don’t want to depend on that, since I believe the benefit of the ones I got is in the seal. My child and I have non refundable plane tickets to FLA and I want to make sure I got the right round filters…Can you offer any advice? Thanks, Holly

    • Yes. If you read the US government docs, the 95 means about 95% of these particles are stopped in the filter. 100 as in the P100, aka HEPA, traps even more…about 99%.
      You are so right about the flimsy masks. I just bought my wife a 6100 with many P95 filters.
      I’m also in Fla regularaly.. a bit nervous!
      I plan to wear my mask on the plane and in all crowds.

      Good luck!


Leave a Comment