Not all masks are equal

Comparing Surgical Masks and Surgical N95 Respirators

The FDA regulates surgical masks and surgical N95 respirators differently based on their intended use.

Picture of a surgical mask

A surgical mask is a loose-fitting, disposable device that creates a physical barrier between the mouth and nose of the wearer and potential contaminants in the immediate environment. These are often referred to as face masks, although not all face masks are regulated as surgical masks. Note that the edges of the mask are not designed to form a seal around the nose and mouth.

Photo of N95 respirator

An N95 respirator is a respiratory protective device designed to achieve a very close facial fit and very efficient filtration of airborne particles. Note that the edges of the respirator are designed to form a seal around the nose and mouth. Surgical N95 Respirators are commonly used in healthcare settings and are a subset of N95 Filtering Facepiece Respirators (FFRs), often referred to as N95s.


Centuries ago the situation was different. The mask and costume that we know from an Italian commedia dell’arte character called Il Medico della Peste (The Doctor of the Pest) references a medical mask and gown costume that was developed by a French physician, Charles de Lorme, around 1620,“… intended to prevent a doctor from becoming ill with bubonic plague when visiting sick patients in quarantine.” The long nose of the mask was filled with herbs meant to purify the air. The overall effect was probably sufficiently scary to keep everyone at a safe distance. The original concept of “social distancing.”

This is also a popular mask seen at the annual Carnival of Venice.

Masquerades for Social Purposes

Venetians not only wore masks (like those shown) during the week of Carnival, they continued to wear them through Lent and beyond at the theater, in gambling halls and brothels, and in public marketplaces and private homes.

However, an in-depth analysis of Venice in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Boston University historian James H. Johnson shows that “Venetian masking served a conservative social function, rather than …a public health one.” 

Masking, Johnson argues, had become a way to allow Venetians of all classes to intermingle socially, economically, and culturally, and it also allowed those from different socio-economic groupings in search of love and physical intimacy to encounter each other in public spaces. 

The patrician class, masking, and Venetian Republicanism were all abolished in 1797 when Napoleon Bonaparte conquered the Serene Republic and enforced the egalitarian principles of the French Revolution.

The #quarantini shown in the photo is the Masquerade cocktail, a close cousin to the always popular drink, the Cosmopolitan

Patrick (Paddy) Moore

Patrick (Paddy) Moore is the author of the series Quarantinis, Eh? featuring cocktails that commemorate the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020-2021.

Recommended Articles