Properly Using Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and Understanding the Difference: Surgical Mask, N95 Respirator

North Andover Health Department
Community and Economic Development Division

Properly using personal protective equipment (PPE)

Personal protective equipment (PPE) is equipment that is worn to minimize exposure to different hazards. With the rise in total cases of COVID-19 across the country, it has become common to see individuals at department or grocery stores wearing masks and gloves while shopping. 

When used correctly, PPE can help protect you and those around you from the COVID-19 virus. The following are instructions, tips and other information regarding the correct use of PPE.

Masks and single use gloves

  • The most commonly used forms of PPE during the COVID-19 outbreak are masks and single use gloves. Single use items, such as masks and gloves, should be disposed of properly after initial use.

  • It is also important to remember that masks and single use gloves are only effective when used in combination with proper hand hygiene (i.e. hand washing, use of hand sanitizer). 


  • There are different types of masks that can be used to protect oneself and others from the spread of COVID-19. These include

    • Surgical masks (disposable or cloth/reusable)

    • N95 Respirator

  • Proper wear and use of a mask is key to ensuring it works correctly.

    • Before putting on a mask, clean your hands with an alcohol based hand sanitizer or with soap and water.

    • When putting on the mask, cover your mouth and nose and make sure there are no gaps between your face and the mask.

    • Avoid touching the mask while using it. If you do happen to touch it, clean your hands with alcohol-based hand sanitizer or soap and water.

    • Remove mask from behind or the ear loops or ties and avoid touching the front of the mask. Discard it immediately in a closed bin, and then clean hands with alcohol-based hand sanitizer or with soap and water.

    • Replace the mask with a new one as soon as it is damp and do not re-use single use masks.

  • It is important to note that there is a difference between the N95 respirator and a surgical mask.

    • Surgical masks – These are loose fitting masks that cover your nose and mouth. Surgical masks provide the wearer protection against large droplets or splashes, and also prevent the wearer from spreading large droplets via sneeze or cough. Surgical masks are considered single use masks. 

    • N95 respirators – N95 respirators are evaluated, tested and approved by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). They reduce the wearer’s exposure to particles including small particle aerosols and large droplets. These are tight fitting and require fit testing. N95 respirators should be discarded after aerosol generating procedures, when contaminated, or when damaged or deformed. 

Single-use gloves

  • Gloves are another commonly used type of PPE. These help create a barrier between your skin and items your hands come in contact with. 

    • Clean hands with alcohol-based hand sanitizer or soap and water before putting on gloves. 

    • While wearing gloves, make sure not to touch your face or other exposed areas of your body.

    • Upon removing gloves, properly dispose of them in a closed bin. Immediately clean hands with alcohol-based hand sanitizer or soap and water after disposal. 

    • If your pair of gloves become torn or ripped you should dispose of them, and then re-clean hands and reapply gloves if needed. 

  • An important thing to remember while using gloves is that gloves do not eliminate viruses or bacteria, they solely prevent them from coming in contact with your hands. 

    • If you are using gloves and touch a contaminated surface, and then touch your face or body, you can still spread viruses or bacteria. 

    • It is still important to be mindful of what you are touching while wearing gloves, and to make sure to use proper hand cleaning methods before and after wearing them. 

    • Gloves are also not a substitute for hand hygiene, and are only effective when used in combination with proper hand hygiene. 

Additional information on PPE