Respirator Mask Explained- Use Only What You Need

Finding the best respirator mask gets very complicated very quickly: what filter on what mask? Of the many, many types of respirator for painting, we present some clarity: we’ll order a la carte. Read the short guide below to find the right mask for the job.

For a short visual summary, jump to the best respirator infographic.

  • the main mask, that straps around your head is the respirator mask itself (these come without filters) and
  • the starter filter kit (comes with 3 things: a set of chemical filtering cartridges, a set of outer paper filters and a set of retaining clips).
  • Us painters use all of the above for toxic work: dust, paints, spraying, etc. See options a la carte, below.
  • Zombie Apocalypse? Brains. Br-aa-ii-nn-ss: This is the best-selling a full face mask: protect eyes and lungs. For particulates only which includes 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.

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!

My top pick below is widely considered to be the best respirator mask.

About the mask: Us painters mostly use the 3M Half-Face paint respirator mask, (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 elastic. 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 extends the life of the big dog filter below.

Configurations: Different pollutants are everywhere:  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.
  • Low toxins, high allergies and dust? (sawing wood, sanding etc): use dusk filters only, save your expensive chemical filters.
  • Both high dust/allergens and toxins? (including latex spray paint) Use paper over the cartridge. All you need is the mask above and this combo kit which gives you options with the outer retaining clip).
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. Jump down to the  full face mask discussed below 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.

I use these safety glasses as well.

• 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. (PS: These also come in the starter kit: see #6 in the box below).
  4. Use a stand-alone HEPA paper filter (the 3M “p-100” for pollen, sawdust, sanding paint etc). Get a HEPA mask kit for just dust: 12 HEPA filters + mask for 50 dollars.Note: HEPA = “P100” = 100% or mold and dust particles.

Painting bathroom tipsMy advice: adopt the 3M respirator mask system which can be configured just for what you need.  All of it for just 60 bucks?  Haaa! Well worth the expense! This is 35+ years of painting (and painting prep) experience talking.


If you missed it above:

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

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 don’t get any money from 3M !!

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

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

Best Pick


3M Half Facepiece Reusable Respirator 6100/07024

This is the real deal: mask comes without filters. See the box below about filters that work in this is a great system.
It is comfortable and well made: I love the strap system closure, and the plastic halter fits any head. Priced below 15 bucks.

You only need 2 products the mask and the cartridge, but you can use an outer particle filter to greatly lengthen the life of your (more expensive) chemical vapor filter to keep the dust out.

What do I need to buy ?

1- You need the mask (see box above).

2- You need the right filters for the job (see box 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:

    2 filters for less than 20 bucks: 3M’s 60926, which filters VOCs-carcinogenic organics (see chart below) and has the paper “Hepa” filter built in. (Hepa is aka ‘P100’). You cannot change this 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 herby 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! ).

    Less than 10 dollars. The 3M 6002 ( not the mask 6002 !! ) See chart below for what toxins are filtered.
    (This one CAN be used with dust filter below)

  • 3-a THE DUST FILTERS (Part 1): the filter itself: 3M’s 5P71
    6 filters for less than 15 dollars. “Hepa” aka “P100” paper filter is excellent for allergies and dust. Note that there are many chemicals in many types of sawdust (from composite “wood”) and this will do the trick. USE ALONE OR ON TOP OF THE 6001 OR 6002 CHEMICAL CARTRIDGE. Requires the clip in part 3-b, below.

  • 3-b THE DUST FILTERS (Part 2): the clip 3M’s 501 Retainer Clip
    2 filters for less than 8 bucks. These hold on to the 6001 and 6002 Cartridges, but not the other cartridges.

    Less than 8 bucks. 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: 3M Particulate Respirator
    10 filters for less than 30 dollars. For dust only, at less than 3 bucks each, use this paper 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.

    Kit for less than 20 dollars. 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 maskAll of the above can be cleaned with air (not water) and will last for hours.  You can tell when they need to be changed by your inhalations:  the difference between your the one you are using contrasted with a new one.

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.

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

There is a very good 3M mask shown below, 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

For one time use. Promises 8 hours of heavy vapor filtering or 40 hour of light vapor filtering. Filters organic vapors (all VOCs) when spraying many types of paint. Price below 20 dollars.

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: 3M’s FullFace 7162. In our view, this is the best respirator for spray painting.

High-quality respirator: HEPA filters for all particulates including pollen etc (allergies and asthma)


3M Mold and Particulate, Full-Face Mask Respirator

Filters some but not all organic vapor, all pollen, dust, etc. Price about 100 dollars.

Full face respirator for spray painting, oil paints, etc. … (with pre-filters and retaining clips)


3M 7162 Full-Face Mask Paint Respirator

Filters most organic vapors + dust with the clip-on outer filters. Complete protection. 3M recommends this for spray painting laquer, enamel and pesticides.Price below 150 dollars and worth it.

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.  I use either the same ones that come with the kit (#6 above), or the 60926, or 6002 (filter), depending on the toxins.

Paint Respirator Mask Guidelines (2)




Paint Respirator Mask Guidelines

4 thoughts on “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.

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