PPE 101: A Guide To What You Need For COVID-19

Personal Protective Equipment (also known as PPE) is the best and cheapest first line of defense against COVID-19. 

For businesses to stay healthy, open, and thrive throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, proper PPE is the single best investment until an effective vaccine is released. 

PPE can be the difference between being the source of an outbreak and keeping your employees safe, healthy, and employed. 

Some people are hoping a vaccine will make the biggest difference in keeping businesses open, but even after an effective vaccine is released, proper PPE will be necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19, likely for the next year at the minimum. 

Proper PPE, like a respirator face mask, costs less than your morning cup of coffee, and it dramatically reduces your risk of infection and the risk of exposure to others.

In this article, we’ll walk you through what PPE is, how it works, recommended PPE, and how to navigate the continually changing guidelines put forth by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.

The people we work with are who we spend a big part of our days and lives with. We want them to be as healthy, happy, and safe as our own families.

By the end of this article, you’ll know which type of PPE is best for your own health, your employees’ health, and protects public health at large.

This article talks you through the following:

  • What is PPE?
  • Who should wear PPE?
  • Examples of PPE and how they work
  • Are washable fabric masks PPE?
  • PPE takeaways 

What Is PPE?

PPE is specialized equipment and clothing used to protect the wearer from harm.

While the term “PPE” is mostly being used in infection control contexts right now, it existed long before the coronavirus disease. It referred to certified protective equipment that protects the wearer from harm. 

OSHA (The Occupational Safety and Health Administration) guides businesses on the proper PPE for each industry

For example, for construction workers, PPE includes hard hats, safety goggles, and boots. Construction workers also have respiratory protection.

There are also four levels of PPE. Each level corresponds to the amount of risk involved in an activity.

The 4 different levels of PPE

Before the outbreak of COVID-19, healthcare personnel and front line workers were the primary industry concerned with PPE for infection control.

Now, any business that interacts with the public and cannot practice safe distancing measures needs to be concerned with infection control.

It’s no longer just health care professionals who need PPE, it’s everyone who interacts with the public.

Who Should Wear PPE?

The short answer is everyone who is in close contact with people who live outside of their household should wear proper PPE each and every time they’re in contact with these people.

COVID-19 is now widespread throughout the United States.

At the onset of the coronavirus outbreak, the risk of contracting and transmitting the virus was mostly to those on the frontlines in healthcare settings.

While frontline workers are still at the highest risk, anyone interacting with the public is now at high risk as well.

The most significant risk factors for contracting the virus include:

  • Being in close contact with other people
  • Being indoors and in areas with poor ventilation
  • How long you’re in these situations
  • Cleanliness, decontamination, and sanitation practices (like hand hygiene and proper doffing and donning of masks)
  • Whether or not you and the people around you are wearing the proper PPE
  • Whether you and the people around you are wearing PPE correctly

Each of these variables changes your level of risk and exposure to COVID-19.

The best protection against contracting the COVID-19 virus comes from managing all of these risk factors properly.

Improving just one of your risk factors can make a big difference.

For most Americans, our jobs determine how physically close we are to other people. Other people’s behavior and whether they wear the proper face masks (or wear them correctly) are outside of our control.

Therefore the two most effective ways for employers and individuals to reduce the risk of COVID-19 is the proper use of PPE and hand hygiene.

PPE For The General Public:

For anyone who works in retail, construction, teaching professions, or any job exposed to other people (but not bodily fluids), the best form of personal protective equipment is a proper respirator face mask.

A respirator face mask (without a valve) does two things:

  1. It prevents the wearer from spreading sars-cov-2 particles that cause COVID-19.
  2. It protects the wearer from inhaling sars-cov-2 particles.

Face masks that protect both the wearer and those around them are called respirator masks.

3-ply masks, cloth masks, and masks with valves do not protect both the wearer and those around them. While these masks prevent mass transmission of harmful pathogens if the wearer sneezes, they do not prevent the wearer from exposure if someone else sneezes. 

Face Mask Comparison Chart

(For a detailed guide to masks, see our ultimate guide to COVID-19 face masks.) 

Face shields do not protect the wearer or those around the wearer from infectious diseases like coronavirus. Face shields may provide minimal protection for short-term exposure to large bodily fluid droplets, but it doesn’t prevent small particles floating in the air from being inhaled. Face shields are the most useful when used in conjunction with eye protection and a respirator mask.

PPE For Healthcare Workers

Medical and healthcare workers need an extra level of protection against COVID-19. Environments like hospitals, clinics, and laboratories are high-risk where there is exposure to bodily fluids and secretions from infected patients.

Medical face masks, respiratory face masks, isolation gowns, coveralls, face shields, gloves, and goggles are the most common PPE for at-risk healthcare workers caring for those infected by the COVID-19 virus.

While face masks fit testing isn’t commonly performed (or needed) for the general public, it is incredibly important in medical settings to reduce the risk of exposure during extended use of masks.

Examples Of PPE And How Each Prevents The Spread of Coronavirus

Personal protective equipment puts a physical barrier between the harmful virus and the person wearing the equipment.

Respirator Face Masks:

man holding a respirator face mask

The most highly recommended for COVID-19, and the most effective of the PPE face masks, is the respirator face mask.

Respirators include a number of ratings such as N95, KN95, FFP2, and FFP3. 

While many people are seeking respirators with the “N95” classification, the “N” simply refers to them being certified by NIOSH, a regulatory body in the United States. 

The other classifications like “KN95” or “FFP2” are equally effective against the coronavirus. Respirators without NIOSH certification mean they’re tested by regulatory agencies outside of the U.S. 

What makes the respirator face mask the most effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19 is that it protects both the wearer and those around them. 
Coughing, sneezing, and speaking, can excrete a large number of saliva droplets into the air in a short amount of time. Respiratory PPE is designed to contain those body fluids and aerosols that can transmit COVID-19.

Respirator face masks work by filtering the air coming in and out of the mask. Respirators seal to the face to ensure that air and respiratory droplets don’t enter (or escape) without being filtered.

Respirators are the only PPE face mask available that protects the wearer against viral particles. 

While respirator masks don’t always filter 100% of viruses out of the air, they can reduce the viral load that the wearer inhales, which early studies are showing reduces the likelihood of a severe reaction to a COVID-19 infection.

3-Ply Face Mask

The 3-ply face mask has become known as the “medical” or “surgical mask.” It provides protection for those in contact with the wearer from their respiratory emissions. 3-ply masks do not protect the wearer from breathing in viral particles or from being exposed to COVID-19.

Disposable Gloves

Single-use disposable gloves are most often worn by healthcare and medical workers. Gloves offer protection from infection while ensuring that hands remain clean and protected in various medical procedures, pharmaceutical work, and cleaning where bodily fluids and other hazardous materials are present. 
There is currently no evidence that supports the use of gloves by the general public. Regular hand washing will work just fine.

Isolation Gowns

Healthcare and medical workers wear isolation gowns as two-way protection for both patients and the wearer. Placing a medical-grade impermeable barrier between patient and provider prevents viruses and bacteria from transmitting from patient to provider (or vice versa).

Isolation gowns are only suitable for healthcare professionals for infection prevention.

Isolation Coveralls

Isolation coveralls are worn by healthcare and medical workers. They’re impermeable whole body garments and protect the wearer against harmful materials.

Isolation coveralls are only suitable for healthcare professionals.

Face Shields

Face shields are worn by healthcare and medical workers in conjunction with other PPE in order to protect the eyes from large droplets of bodily fluid while performing aerosol-generating procedures (like performing intubations in an intensive care unit or performing dental work). They are only effective in conjunction with other forms of PPE and are most suitable for healthcare professionals.

Are Washable Fabric Masks PPE?

man holding a cloth face mask

Cloth masks are not PPE. 

While it is generally better to wear a cloth mask than to wear no face covering at all, washable cloth masks are unproven and untested against the COVID-19 virus. 
Washable fabric face masks provide the most minimal protection for the wearer and those they come in contact with.

Cloth masks provide a physical barrier between the wearer and those around them, so they help reduce the spread of respiratory droplets. 

But they are the last resort option and should only be used when PPE is in short supply or as an outer layer to make respirator masks last longer when supplies are limited. 

Placing a clean cloth mask over a proper respirator (like an N95 respirator) makes it easier to reuse respirators when they’re in short supply.

Which Form Of PPE Is Right For You?

If you work near other people but are not exposed to bodily fluids, the best and most affordable protection against COVID-19 is a respirator face mask. 

The CDC’s guidelines are that everyone wears a face mask in public. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, the CDC’s guidelines included no masks for the general public. The goal was to reduce the risk of a shortage of PPE to healthcare workers.

Now, the CDC has interim guidance that includes everyone wearing face masks. 
At the time of publishing this article, the CDC’s guidelines do not match the fact that PPE supply and manufacturing have caught up. 
Respirator masks are in stock, and there are enough to go around for medical facilities, frontline workers, and anyone who needs or wants them.

Where doctors and healthcare systems are still experiencing shortages, it’s often because the hospital is no longer buying them to protect doctors, not because manufacturers are out of supply.

If individuals and businesses wear proper PPE, frontline workers are much less likely to be overwhelmed because fewer people will end up sick in the first place. 
Just as important as wearing the appropriate PPE is using it correctly.

Masks, for example, must be tight and fit around your chin and nose. Masks only protect you if put on with clean, washed hands.

Incorrectly using or wearing PPE increases the likelihood of infection.

The Takeaways:

  • The best line of defense against COVID-19 for the general public and those who work with the public is to wear a respirator mask.
  • Only a respirator mask protects both the wearer and other people.
  • Respirator masks are in supply, and there is no shortage right now. Buying and wearing respirators will protect frontline workers from being overwhelmed in hospitals.
  • Healthcare providers should be supplied with proper PPE. Hospitals who are not providing proper PPE daily to their employees are a risk to everyone.
  • The use of personal protective equipment does not eliminate the need to practice COVID-19 precautions, such as physically distancing from those outside of your household and regular hand-washing.

For more information on PPE and why it is important, read our previous blog post: Quick PPE Guide For Small Business During COVID-19.

Cover photo by Griffin Wooldridge from Pexels.