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a selection of respirators

Respirators: Disposable or Reusable?

in Application Techniques

On the job site, you always want to protect yourself and your team. The choice between a disposable filtering facepiece respirator and a reusable cartridge respirator relates to your exposure assessment and what kind of protection you need. Before you choose, make sure you understand what hazards you’ll be exposed to for a particular job.


  • When you hear the term “disposable respirator,” think protection against particle exposures, not chemical exposures. Some disposable respirators do offer a layer of carbon in the media to help reduce exposure to some odors, but it’s not enough carbon to deal with chemical exposures that are exceeding OSHA’s Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs).
  • Disposable respirators tend to be more comfortable than their reusable counterparts because of their lighter construction. They cost less, require no maintenance and are simply thrown away at the end of their service life.


  • When you’re dealing with chemical exposures that exceed OSHA’s Permissible Exposure limits (PELs), select a reusable respirator with the appropriate chemical cartridge.
  • Reusable respirators are versatile since they offer the option of choosing a particle filter or chemical cartridge. Chemical cartridges contain activated carbon to help reduce exposure to a variety of different chemical types, depending on the NIOSH approval rating.
  • The carbon inside the cartridges is treated for different chemical types. Because of the many different chemicals you may be exposed to, there are a variety of chemical cartridge options designed for specific applications. They are color coded to help with selection (see chart below).
  • Some cartridges allow you to add a particulate prefilter, so you can help filter out both particulates and gases/vapors. Reusable respirators also have the option of using particulate filters only which can attach to the reusable facepiece directly.
  • Reusable respirators require regular maintenance and cleaning and have a higher initial cost than disposables, but they may save money in the long run when the facepiece is reused and the cartridges and filters are simply replaced.
  • When properly fit and sealed to the face, a disposable respirator and a half facepiece reusable respirator offer the same level of protection for the worker. OSHA has assigned them both a protection factor of 10. This means they protect against particulate contaminant concentrations up to 10 times the occupational exposure limit.

chart of common respirator cartridge color codes

See a full list of respirators and accessories at the Sherwin-Williams contractor website.

Learn more

The information in this article was developed in conjunction with Jason T. Lunn, Senior Technical Service Engineer, and Rebecca L. Schumann, Industrial Hygienist, Technical Service, at 3M Safety Products. For more on this topic:

This article was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of the Sherwin-Williams CommercialPro newsletter. Get more business-building tips and info on products, services, discounts and project solutions on the Sherwin-Williams contractor website.

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