The Ultimate Gas Mask Guide
Proper gas mask and respirator use can mean the difference between life and death in situations like severe air pollution, riots, fires, natural disasters, pandemics, and even nuclear attacks.
However, most people have dangerously wrong ideas about them and how to use them.
Let's clear up some of the misconceptions and make sure that you can make the right decisions for you and your family and make sure you don't waste money or worse, get the wrong stuff!
BTW If you buy anything from the links we provide on this page we might get a small percentage of the sale. For more info click here.
Why Do You Need a Gas Mask or Respirator?
Breathing is important, right? You can last about 2 minutes without breathing before you pass out, and then you are in real trouble.
There are a huge amount of reasons why you and your family would need gas masks or respirators:
- Fires and smoke
- Particulates launched during natural disasters, like earthquakes
- Pandemics and day-to-day bacteria/virus
- Riot control agents (pepper spray, tear gas, CS, CN)
- Chemical spills, industrial auto and train accidents, etc.
- Volcanic ash
- Nuclear fallout
- Biological or chemical attack gases
Anyone who lives in a multi-floor building, city, or an area that suffers from wildfires needs to have one that will protect against smoke inhalation at the very least.
If you spend time underground in subways, it might not be a bad idea to have one either, fires do happen!
(Although carrying a gas mask around with you whenever you ride the subway might be a little odd...just saying)
There are four main types of threats we can use a mask or respirator to protect against:
Toxic chemicals, gases, and nerve agents. Smoke from fire.
All microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi.
Radioactive particles dispersed by a dirty bomb.
Radioactive fallout from a nuclear device, weapon, or reactor.
We will dive into each of these a little bit more later, but first let's explore how they work and the types of protective masks that are available and desirable for our purposes.
How do They Work?
Gas masks and respirators are essentially filters. Filters remove particles. Particles are physical things floating in the air, like dust, smoke and combusted debris from a fire, asbestos from a collapsed building, viruses and bacteria, and even tear gas (which is actually floating crystals, not gas.)
These undesirables are filtered out with very fine screens, measured down to below 1 micron. For reference, an average human hair is 75 microns wide. The N95 mask is rated such because it screens out 95% of particles that are 0.3 micron in size.
Gases are trickier because they slip through even the most fine-grained screens. Which is why you can breathe air (a gas) through a particulate filter.
So instead of trying to block the gas, an absorbent — typically activated charcoal, a very porous form of carbon — attracts and soaks up the chemicals as they pass through.
Not every gas is naturally trapped by charcoal which is partly why some specific threats, like ammonia, are rated separately from umbrella categories like “inorganic vapors”.
Characteristics of Respirators and Masks
There are four main characteristics of respirators and masks:
- Passive vs. Powered: Passive means your breathing motion draws air in through a filter. Powered respirators use batteries and fans to suck air in, which makes it easier to breathe.
- Air Purifying vs. Air Supplying: Air Purifying simply filters the outside air as you breathe in. Air Supplying comes from tanks, called SCBA, which pro firefighters and HAZMAT teams use.
- Form factor: Does it cover half your face, or is it a full hood, etc.
- Threat protection: Varies in degrees; from spray paint and sawdust to disease and radioactive fallout.
For the sake of our discussion we will mostly focus on Passive Air Purifiers, mainly because the Active Powered types can be very expensive, and require specific training to use.
Active Air Supplying masks. Expensive, heavy, and likely overkill for our purposes.
Types of Respirators and Masks
There are several different kinds of models, with varying functionalities and degrees of protection:
- Dust masks Cheap masks used when people are doing things like construction.
- Surgical masks (aka procedure masks). They do not protect your lungs. Instead, they prevent any particulates from the wearer’s mouth and nose from spreading outward, like a doctor sneezing during surgery, or blood splashes from landing in the wearer’s mouth.
- Respirators Technically “gas masks” are also respirators, but in common lingo people usually mean the disposable N95 types or construction crew types that form a tight seal around your mouth and nose.
- Escape hoods (aka fume hoods, smoke hoods). Cheaper, single-use version of a gas mask, but specifically for sudden “I need to escape this burning building!” types of emergencies.
- Gas masks People use this label for all kinds of gear, even though it technically only means respirators that protect against gases.
- CBA/RCA gas masks Rated for Riot Control Agents like pepper spray.
- NBC gas masks Rated for Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical threats.
- CBRN gas masks (aka riot masks). Basically an NBC mask plus extra protection against “terrorist” threats like dirty bombs.
Gas Mask vs. Respirator
Ok, so what is the difference between a Gas Mask and Respirator and when would you prefer one over the other?
A Gas Mask is a full-face mask that, when using the proper filter, will protect against vapors, gases, and particles. They offer the best levels of protection for the passive types of masks (un-powered or without an air tank.) These are for when things are really funky, and you need the best protection you can get.
A Respirator is what you get from the hardware store, and depending on the kind they can protect against low levels of particulates, bacteria, and sometimes gasses. Since they are cheap and easy to pack it is a smart idea to have them stashed around where they are easy to get to: put a couple in your car, in your emergency survival kits, around the house.
Which do you chose? Ideally a combination of both.
Respirators can be an inexpensive way to provide basic levels of protection against common threats.
Gas Masks will be what you'd need when things go really bad.
Respirator Buyers Guide
We'll start with Respirators since they are easy to get a hold of and use, inexpensive, and good for a number of reasons that concern us such as disease, particles and some vapors.
There are two types we will look at: the soft kinds and the rigid half-face with replaceable filter kind.
Your local Depot type hardware store should have several in stock, otherwise you can grab them online. There is a big difference in the protection levels.
Look for at least N95 or P100 ratings on whatever you buy. These give you the best bang for the buck at around $12-17 each.
The overall best in this space is the 3M 8293 P100 Cup Respirator.
You get at least 99.97% of airborne particles along some aerosol oil resistance (pepper spray, etc.)
If you want to save a few $$ grab some 3M 8575 P95 Particulate Respirators. A box of 10 gets each one to you at about $4 each. They will give you an adequate level of protection for half the price.
Half Face Respirators
Beefing up the area around the mouth allows half face respirators to protect against some gases, along with the same items the soft ones deal with.
Most masks don’t come with the necessary filters or cartridges, so you'll have have to grab those as well.
The two best models are either the 3m 7093 P100 filters ($5 ea) or the 3M 60926 P100 ($8 ea.) The 60926 are slightly more powerful that the 7093, but they have these bright pink outside covers that are kinda...loud.
Gas Mask Buyers Guide
To recap: a gas mask is a full-face mask that, when using the proper filter, will protect against vapors, gases, and particles.
Gas masks are rated based on the threat they are designed to protect the wearer from. The ratings are as follows:
Chemical Blowing and Riot Control Agents
Specialty Ratings – designed to protect the wearer from specific HAZMAT or CBRN threats
For civil preparedness purposes, you would want a CBRN mask with the following set of features:
Presence of a speech diaphragm
Hydration system compatibility
Compatibility with optics
Whether the rubber is resistant to chemical warfare agents
Fits 40mm 1/7” NATO filter cartridges
Whether there are government and law enforcement agencies currently using the mask. This is an extra indicator of quality.
We should mention here that there is a lot of bad information out there about gas masks, and a TON of inferior product that will fail when you need it most.
Do NOT just buy a random gas mask or filters and think it will work properly. BE VERY CAREFUL.
Best case scenario you lose a little money.
Worst case scenario you need to depend on that mask to save you and your families lives and it fails.
Make sure you ONLY purchase products from well known, reputable companies that are supplying public agencies such as law enforcement or the military.
What to Avoid
A good gas mask is going to cost some money. There is just no getting around it.
You'll find inexpensive stuff out there for sure but 99% of it is surplus, which means they are very likely expired gas masks that won’t give you the protection you need.
Here is a list of masks to avoid:
Israeli Civilian Mask – These masks are easy to find in surplus stores, and they are cheap, which means they are most likely outdated and won’t protect you when you need it. On top of this, the mask offers poor visibility, making it a no-go when it comes to military or law enforcement operations.
Israeli Military M15 Mask – Similar to the 4A1 Israeli Civilian mask, but this mask has better visibility and will protect against select warfare agents. However, it is generally only sold as surplus, particularly in the U.S., which means it is likely outdated and useless.
Cheap Chinese gas masks – These masks are easy to identify because the instructions for use are either in broken English or Chinese. They are made from cheap materials and are generally rated only by Chinese oversight institutions. In addition, replacement filters are very hard to find. These masks are typically found on AliExpress, Alibaba, or white labeled by various sellers on Amazon.
M17 Gas Mask – An outdated gas mask that was once used by the U.S. Armed Forces, notably in the Vietnam War, but was later replaced by updated models. While overall a useful mask that provided CBRN protection, the mask had to be removed to change the filters.
Czech M-10-M Protective Mask – This is an outdated mask that is not at all useful for CBRN protection. The design was inspired by the M17.
GP-5 Gas Mask – This is a Russian gas mask that is completely outdated. Production ended in 1990, so if you find one, you can be sure it’s of no use.
Canadian C-3 Protective Mask – This mask was made from 1960-1982, and is the predecessor to the Canadian C-4 mask. Although it’s been out of production for over 30 years, it is still available on military surplus websites and eBay. This mask uses 60mm threaded filters which are very difficult to find in new condition.
Canadian C-4 Protective Mask – This gas mask is currently used by the Canadian Armed Forces. There were adhesive issues with the original black masks, so if used, you should only use the green or tan masks. The filter can be mounted on the right or left, which is a tactical advantage, but with two separate eyepieces, rather than a single face plate, the field of vision could be better.
Serbian M1 Gas Mask – This was inspired by the old M9 American gas mask, and it was used by the Iraq army in the Gulf War. If you find this in the U.S, it is surplus and can’t be trusted. In addition, there may be chromium in the filter.
Thanks to MIRA Safety for this list!
Who to Trust
There are a number of reputable companies out there:
Mira Safety, MSA, Avon, Dräger, Mestel and 3M are all manufacturers that you can rely on.
Let's take a look at some of the best models from a few of these for your consideration.
Our Top Choice
MIRA Safety CM-6M Tactical Gas Mask
If you are looking for a lower priced mask but one that still has all the features you would expect for CBRN protection, then look no further than the CM-6M Tactical Gas Mask from MIRA Safety.
Approved by government entities in: The Czech Republic, Norway, Portugal, Chile, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Kuwait, Latvia, and Lebanon...some of which are good places to have a gas mask handy one might think.
For around $219 when purchased directly from MIRA you can get a CBRN rated mask with standard 40mm filter attachments and a 20-year shelf life with FREE shipping.
One perk of buying from MIRA is, you can get 2 filters for a steep discount with purchase of the mask - about $50 each, instead of $80 w/o the mask.
Even better, if you use the code MIRA10 at checkout you get an additional 10% off. That lands you a mask and 2 filters for $283.30 (at time of writing.)
You really can't find a better deal for a mask of this quality.
MIRA also makes the CM-7M, which is a military style mask designed for those who need to cheek mount a rifle.
Entry Level Price
Mestel SGE 150 Gas Mask
Mestel is an Italian company that is a part of US based Ocean Reef group and has been making gas masks since the 80's. They make several types of full-face respirators, and the SGE 150 is their most affordable.
The SGE 150 can handle things like tear gas and pepper spray, smoke, some chemicals and vapors. It's based on their design for the scuba masks they also make, therefore it is not CBRN rated.
If you can spend the extra money, the SGE 400/3 and 400/3 BB are the better options. Amazon has them, but only in S/M sizes. Check around online for other sizes if you need it.
Avon C50 and M50
If you want to roll like the military or police, look no further than the Avon series of masks. You can find them around online new for around $450-550 for new in a few places.
Be careful that you don't buy the ones that are copies for paintball or airsoft. You'll know somethings not right because they are under $100.
The C50 is the better choice overall simply because it can accept the standard 40mm filters.
The M50 uses custom filters. They are available on eBay, but buy at your own risk.
As long as you buy a filter with a 40mm connector on it you will have a wide variety of filters to choose from. Not all are equal, and some are CBRN, some are not.
The best all around filter is the MIRA CBRN Gas Mask Filter NBC-77. Now it isn't the least expensive option in the short term, but in the long term it is.
Why? Because they have a 20 year shelf life, where most others have an much shorter useful life.
So you could buy an Avon filter, and they are awesome, but your getting 8 year shelf life. Just make sure you are getting them new, there are some out there a couple of years old, which gives them even less life.
You can get the Avon's on Amazon for about $40 or pickup 2 MIRA with your mask and get them for under $50 each.