On test: Reusable half-mask respirators – which is best?

Time to swap your disposable dust masks for a reusable respirator? Oliver Mark and James Andrews gear up and try out seven widely available options.

Any job involving a dust mask is likely one you’ll loathe. But getting geared up with a decent muzzle protector will at least help shield your lungs from the grime and dirt you’re sweeping, shovelling or blowing.

Paper disposables have long been store cupboard essentials, but they’re not as cheap as they once were and few fit snugly enough to reliably keep dust out, particularly during energetic work.

See also: 10 popular dust masks put to the test

Which brings us to reusable half-mask respirators. As the name suggests, these rubber mouthpieces are designed to last long term, with wearers simply replacing the filter elements they carry.

Though the upfront cost of the masks themselves is modest – prices range from about £15 to £30 – there is a premium to pay for the better protection they provide.

Pairs of P3-rated filters, which vary in style from small, circular pad inserts to fully enclosed cartridges, typically come in at upwards of £7 a pop. And most should be changed as frequently as you would with a disposable.

To find out which is best, we raided major retailers for half-masks from six mainstream brands. Average spend on a mask and pair of P3 filters was about £25, but we did blow the Farmers Weekly budget on a full-face option as a means of comparison.

The JSP Force 10 has breathing apparatus almost identical to the half-mask Force 8 version, but with a big visor that saves the wearer having to don a pair of ill-fitting safety glasses or goggles.

It’s ideal for extended use in a grain store but shop carefully, as prices for that model range from £48 (Britannia Safety) to over £130 (Screwfix).

JSP Force 8

JSP Force 8 © MAG/Oliver Mark

Picking the right filter

The half-masks are all variations on a similar theme – a rubber muzzle with two side-mounted inhalation valves and one at the front that opens as the wearer exhales.

The big difference is filters. No two brands are the same, so you need to make sure you match them correctly – particularly as more than half the respirators we ordered came “bare”.

Of our test group, 3M, JSP and Dewalt go for sealed plastic cartridges and the Moldex has open-ended cylinders.

Stanley opts for small circular pads protected by a thick grille, while GVS has open, kidney-shaped pleated filters.

All should be plastered with numbers that include a CE mark to confirm they have met the minimum legal requirements and an EN stamp of conformity (BS EN 140, BS EN 143 and BS EN 1827).

Colour coding indicates what they protect against. Anything with a white band and the letter “P” – for particles – is for filtration of solid and liquid particles (dust, mist, fine sprays, aerosols, fumes, smoke and micro-organisms), but not organic gases and vapours.

For those, you need to look for a brown band and the letter “A”.

Bulkier A2P3 filters do both. But if they’re not labelled as such then bear in mind that particle filters don’t protect against gases/vapours, and vice versa.

The “P” filters we’re focusing on here come in three grades with varying degrees of protection. Lowest is P1, which has an “assigned protection factor” of four.

This means wearers will inhale at least four-times fewer particles than they would without a mask. The equivalent disposable mask rating is FFP1.

Mid-level P2s have a protection factor of 10, which is an FFP2 in disposable currency, and P3s, like an FFP3 mask, have a protection factor of 20.

Often following these codes is an “R” for reusable, or “NR” for single use

How long will the filters last?

HSE says one hour, but filter life expectancy depends on the type and concentration of contaminant, cumulative use, and the wearer’s breathing rhythm and intensity.

The more huffing and puffing that goes on, the quicker they’ll accumulate particles that stop the air flow.

Given that farmworkers might only use their masks for a few minutes at a time over harvest, the decision as to replacing the filters should be at the wearer’s discretion.

Breathing resistance is usually a tell-tale sign of their condition, particularly for the enclosed cartridges where it’s impossible to see how much dust has accumulated.

After heavy use, the filters should be detached and the rubber mouthpiece rinsed to remove contamination, yucky moisture and microbes, then stored in a dust-free environment.

An old ice cream tub would do the job though, handily, JSP and 3M masks come with a plastic drawstring bag.

All filters have an expiry date, which is important to note if you’re buying in bulk and keeping a stash to last a few years.

The Fit Test

Checking you’ve got a good seal is imperative, and that starts with being clean-shaven.

The JSP filters have a built-in “press-to-check” function to assess the tightness of the fit, as does the Stanley – albeit a slightly naffer affair.

That said, it’s no harder to check the others, usually by placing hand palms over the filter inlets and then breathing in. The mask should suck to your face and stay tight with your breath held for 10 seconds.

HSE recommends that continuous wear time of a reusable half-mask is limited to an hour – the same as for a disposable mask. This is mainly because it can get uncomfortable after long periods of use, increasing the likelihood of it being loosened or removed prematurely.

You can find HSE’s lengthy guide to respiratory protective equipment on the HSE website.

The masks

Stanley

Stanley

Stanley © James Andrews

  • Cheapest online £19.70, including pair of P3 filters (UK Planet Tools)
  • Replacement P3 filter cost £9.98 (Toolstation)
  • Filter type/options – Hepac oval pads are far smaller than the others tested. Fuzzy, wool-like pre-filter on the outside helps catch larger particles to prevent premature clogging and extend the life of the paper element.
  • No A2P3 option – P3 only.

Fit

Two choices – small/medium and medium/large. Chunky straps offer four points of adjustment but pressure isn’t spread very evenly.

It tends to be tight over the nose, gappy around the chin and the straps need ratcheting tight, leaving marks on the wearer’s face.

Exhalation is harder than the others due to a small exit vent, leading to heavier breathing and more sweat

Verdict

Similar to wearing a disposable. Assembled as two layers, with a rock-solid outer shell and rubber inner to carry the filters and valves. Filters seem expensive and they’re fiddly to replace

  • Best for Solid exterior
  • Ranking 4

Dewalt

Dewalt

Dewalt © MAG/Oliver Mark

  • Cheapest online £21.90, including pair of P3 filters (Power Tool World).
  • Replacement P3 filter cost £6.77 (Power Tool World).
  • Filter type/options – Sealed cartridge with twist-lock connection. Chunkier A2P3 version (pictured) also available for combined protection from particles and organic gases/vapours.

Fit

Medium and large only. Worst fit of the lot, with a single length of elastic strung through four corners of the plastic shell.

Only the bottom strap has adjustment, so the chin section ends up tighter, cutting into the neck, and it’s too loose over the bridge of the nose.

This also means the straps pull out of position every time the mask is removed and, because it’s a good deal heavier, it wobbles on the face.

Verdict

Not as easy to put on, nor as comfortable to wear, as the JSP, Moldex or 3M. And the bare mask is more expensive.

  • Best for Nothing particularly – buy the Moldex or JSP instead
  • Ranking 5

JSP Force 8

  • Cheapest online £11.90 (Workwear Express)
  • Replacement P3 filter cost £7.25 (The Face Mask Store)
  • Filter type/options – Enclosed hard-shell cassette with twist-lock attachment and “press-and-check” system to assess the seal.

Broad range of filters including A2P3s for particles and organic vapours/gases, and “compact” P3s.

These are lightweight (50g), low-profile pillows with the same twist-lock attachment but are recommended for one-day use; standard hard-shell filters are said to be good for five days.

Fit

Three sizes – small, medium and large. Supple, well-shaped rubber hugs the face and there’s plenty of adjustment on the four straps.

Once set, these rarely need altering, unlike the Dewalt.

Easy breathing, with air drawn in through slots at the back of the plastic filter shell, rather than from the front where there’s likely to be more dust. Sealed filter elements are protected from damage.

Verdict

Decent value, with the bonus of coming with a drawstring storage bag.

  • Best for All-rounder
  • Ranking 2

GVS Elipse

GVS Eclipse

GVS Eclipse © MAG/ Oliver Mark

  • Cheapest online £19.99 (JT Atkinson Builders Merchant)
  • Replacement P3 filter cost £10.58
  • Filter type/options – P3 filters only. Kidney-shaped pads located in recesses on the rubber body and fronted by a thin plastic cage that also carries the straps.

Fit

Elastic needs really stretching to get a tight fit – but it’s better in that regard than the other ‘compact’ model, the Stanley.

The flexible body is low-profile enough to not impede the wearer’s field of vision at all. But it’s exceptionally narrow and, even with the “large” size, the wearer’s chops rub against inhalation valves.

Smells very rubbery and has an annoying clicking sound with every breath.

Verdict

Has the edge over the Stanley, which uses similarly small filters – they’re easier to fit, the rubber is softer and the mask is more comfortable.

Open front grille gives sight of the filters but they, and the rubber exhale valve, are less well protected.

  • Best for Compact size
  • Ranking 3

Moldex 7000

Moldex 7000

Moldex 7000 © MAG/Oliver Mark

  • Cheapest online £15.99 excluding filters (Zoro)
  • Replacement P3 filter cost £4.60 (PMY Group)
  • Filter type/options –  Flying saucer-shaped P3s have an open ended filter in a plastic housing.

Handily, it’s available with A2P3s (for particles and vapours) which sees a P3 stacked on an A2, so the whole lot can be dissembled, the deeper A2 cylinder removed and the white P3 element fitted directly to the twist-lock on the mask.

Fit

Small (7001), medium (7002) and large (7003). The easiest to fit in a hurry and super lightweight so it doesn’t jiggle around during work, though the lower strap can dig into the neck.

Irritating click on the exhale as the valve unseats, but this air is at least directed downwards, so safety glasses can be worn without risk of them immediately steaming up.

Verdict

The best all-rounder, and it comes with the cheapest P3 filters. The detachable design of the A2P3s might also be handy.

  • Best for Lightweight
  • Ranking 1

3M 6000

3M 6000

3M 6000 © MAG/Oliver Mark

  • Cheapest online: £15.99 excluding filters (Zoro)
  • Replacement P3 filter cost: £8 (The Face Mask Store)
  • Filter type/options: Ranges from simple, open pads to twist-on cassettes in sealed plastic cases. Can also get a bulkier A2P3s, but they come as one unit – unlike the detachable Moldex version.

Fit

Small (6100), medium (6200) and large (6300). Plenty of give in the supple rubber mouthpiece and almost as lightweight as the Moldex, which makes it comfortable to wear. It’s probably the easiest to breathe in, too. But the clips for adjusting strap tension, the skull cap headpiece and the toggle to join bottom straps are made from pathetically flimsy plastic and will snap

But the clips for adjusting strap tension, skull cap headpiece and the toggle to join bottom straps are made from pathetically flimsy plastic and will snap.

Verdict

Build quality and comfort of the mask itself is up there with the best, but the thin plastic isn’t up to the job – hence the bottom-of-the-league ranking.

The iffy behind-the-neck clip is likely to fail first, rendering the mask unusable. Comes with a string-pull plastic storage bag.

  • Best for: Easy breathing
  • Ranking 6

The wildcard – JSP Force 10

  • Cheapest online £48.52 (Britannia Safety)
  • Replacement P3 filter cost £7.25 (The Face Mask Store)
  • Filter type/options – Same twin sealed cassettes as JSP Force 8

Fit

Three sizes. Bit of a fag to get on, as the rubber harness doesn’t loosen quite enough to pull over the wearer’s head without extracting a few head hairs en route.

Once in position, the four thick rubber straps pull tight to form a comfortable, air-tight seal around the forehead, jowls and chin. Panoramic visor curves around wearer’s face without inhibiting peripheral vision.

Fresh air is drawn through the filters to circulate throughout the whole mask, which all but eliminates steam build-up.

Air exhaled through a bigger Typhoon valve than the Force 8 version.

Verdict

The only full-face mask in this test. Ideal for jobs that require eye protection, such as blowing down grain stores. It’s a more expensive option and needs taking care of, so it’s worth spending £13 on a pack of 10 peel-off visor protectors.

  • Best for: Grainstore cleaning

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