The respirator dust mask, which we breathe in all day, can become dirty and frankly, get pretty gross. Respirator cleaning is probably a good idea, right?
What are the steps for cleaning a respirator?
Here is a quick list of the steps to clean a respirator.
- Disassemble all the respirator mask parts
- Clean parts with soap and water and dry
- Reassemble the respirator
- Test the seal of the respirator
- Replace filters and valve diaphragms as needed
This article will thoroughly cover all the steps in detail for cleaning a respirator air mask.
In general, to clean a respirator, you need to disassemble the respirator and clean each part before drying and reassembling the dus mask.
Respirator cleaning requires very little time and is a healthy thing to do, compared to leaving it dirty.
Respirators Like Seat Belts
Before we go any further, we have to address a quick question.
You are using a dust mask respirator, correct?
When it comes to woodworking and dust, I think as a group we’re a bit behind when it comes to the safety of our lungs. It’s kinda like seat beats in the 1970s. “Sure, there are seat belts in the car, but I don’t want to use them.”
Dust in the lungs accumulates over time. Yes, you may cough a little today, but day after day your lungs can build up micro dust particles and eventually you can have serious issues.
Dust Mask Must
It’s the twenty-first century, we all wear, or should be wearing seat belts. Likewise, we all need to be wearing respirators when we work around wood dust, period.
Woodworkers are a tiny percentage of the population. We aren’t going to have government agencies pushing “wear your dust mask” campaigns like they did with seat belts.
We need to be proactive, responsible and do the right thing ourselves.
Ok, I’ll step down from the soapbox. But, please wear your dust mask respirator.
The respirator I use has changed over the years. I did use those flimsy paper masks, and I’ve tried a washable cloth mask also.
There was a big problem with paper masks. They let dust in! Because they don’t seal entirely around the mouth and nose, it’s easy to pull in particulates from around the edges of the mask.
Here is an easy way to tell if your respirator mask is sufficient. If you can smell or taste while wearing the mask, you ARE breathing the air and inhaling the dust.
The Respirator I Use
To be honest, I was resistant to wearing a bigger mask. I didn’t want to be uncomfortable and look silly. Blah, blah, blah. Excuses, excuses.
It did take a little time to adjust to, but guess what? I wasn’t breathing dust and sneezing anymore. And I could not smell anything through this mask.
Yes, when you have a proper fitting respirator, you DO NOT smell or taste the air you breathe.
Cleaning Different Types of Breathing Respirators
Most of the air respirators have similar construction and can be cleaned in the same way.
If you have an active charcoal respirator, designed for vapor and paint fumes, there will be the added step of removing and replacing the charcoal filter.
But for the most part, each respirator is cleaned the same way.
Steps For Respirator Cleaning
- disassemble the respirator
- remove filters
- detach head strap
- snap apart the main body components
- carefully remove inhalation diaphragm valves
- gently remove exhalation flap diaphragm valve
- using dish soap and water clean all parts
- use a bottle brush to clean all areas
- dry all components
- reassemble respirator
- test respirator
- replace any damaged parts
First, remove the filters by rotating them counterclockwise until they come free.
Look for the snapping connection points between the different parts of the mask. The mask just snaps together.
A big clue for locating where to separate the mask is to see where the different materials are located. The rubber mask snaps into the hard plastic portion which contains the head strap.
Basically, all the hard plastic parts can be pulled away from the softer rubber pieces. Work gently with your fingers, and you will be able to find the joint that can be snapped apart.
Gently remove the thin rubber diaphragm valves from the mask.
The inside filter valve diaphragms are mounted to posts and need to be carefully moved up the post for removal.
On the outside, the exhalation valve diaphragm is a large flap with mounting posts. Again, carefully pull these posts from the mask.
Soap And Water Clean Up
Mix some warm water in a bowl with a bit of dish soap and soak all the mask components.
I would not submerge the headgear portion unless it really needs to be cleaned. The elastic straps will take some time to dry if they get wet.
Use a bottle brush cleaner or old tooth brush to reach the inside regions of the mask. The brush can be used on other parts as well, to break up any collected dirt or debris.
Rinse and Dry
With clean water, rinse off all the parts thoroughly after washing.
Use a towel to dry all of the mask parts including the interior. Spread the parts out on a clean, dry towel and let them thoroughly dry.
Once the respirator parts have been washed and dried, reassemble the mask.
Carefully snap all the more significant components together until the mask is whole again, but don’t install the filters yet.
Install Valve Diaphragms
The diaphragm valves control air flow in and out of the mask. These parts need to be clean and seat flat against the openings.
Carefully install each rubber diaphragm to its location and check for a good fit and seal to the surrounding area.
Testing the Respirator Mask
Before installing the filters, this is an excellent time to test your air mask respirator.
Put the mask on like normal and check that you can breathe regularly.
Place the palms of your hands over the two side holes where the filters install. Cover the holes completely.
Try to take a breath. If you can pull in air, the seals or the fit of the mask is not working correctly. Adjust your palms carefully and try again.
If everything is working correctly, you should not be able to pull in air. Instead, when you attempt to breathe, the mask will contract tightly on your face.
You will need to replace the diaphragm valve seals or replace the whole mask if you are able to pull in air to breathe during this test.
Replace the Respirator Filters
I use the 3M 2097 filters, and they last a good long time.
How long? Well, that’s a good question. It all depends on your usage. If you are breathing through the mask every day, day after day, you will need to replace the filters more often.
Do not try to blow out the filters with an air compressor, this will only damage the filters.
If the filters look dirty or you have to work to pull air in, replace the filters.
I replace mine filters about every six months.
Quick Respirator Sanitizing
Ok, so it might take a little time to thoroughly clean the respirator.
How do you clean a respirator quickly?
If your working and you don’t have time to completely clean your respirator, you can just wipe it out.
There are respirator cleaning swabs designed to quickly clean out your air mask. These swabs will promptly kill any germs and wipe away any gunk.
Later, when you have a moment, it’s still a good idea to disassemble the respirator and thoroughly clean all the parts.
Respirator Valuable Lesson
I heard an interesting story from a chemical engineer friend of mine, Barry.
He was asked by a company that does a lot of painting to inspect their factory spray booth.
Some employees were complaining of headaches from breathing fumes. The company thought there was a leak from the spray booth.
When he went to inspect the spray booth, he found the problem quickly. The workers were hanging their charcoal filter vapor respirators inside the spray booth.
The active charcoal attacks all airborne elements whether the mask is on your face or not. So the charcoal filters were worn out from being inside the booth full time.
The lesson from this story is to store our respirators in a clean place.
If you have an active charcoal filter respiratory, it should have come with a sealable plastic bag for storage. It needs to be in that bag whenever it’s not being used.
You might be thinking, well I don’t use one of those, so this doesn’t pertain to me. Wait a minute.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve laid my mask down more than once in a dusty shop. When I’ve come back and put my mask on, I immediately tasted wood dust. Yuck!
Even though the dust mask is not actively filtering air like the charcoal vapor mask, we can borrow the same clean bag idea.
Use a large plastic zip-lock bag to hold and protect your respirator when it is not in use. Besides, it will stay clean longer this way as well.
Consider placing a clean dry paper towel inside the mask to absorb any moisture and help prevent mildew from forming inside the mask during storage.
Respirator Cleaning Conclusion
Cleaning your respirator is not that complicated, and it essentially restores your air mask to new again.
If you’ve sneezed or coughed inside your mask, it’s not the end of the world.
Unlike the cheaper respirator masks, a good quality mask like the 3M 6500 series respirators is designed to be used, cleaned, and last a long time.
Most importantly, your air respirator is designed to protect your lungs.
Taking a little time to take care of this critical safety equipment is really about taking a little time to take care of YOU!
Check out my Recommended Safety Equipment page for all the safety gear I use while turning wood bowls and everything else.