Checking Respirators for Fit


A respirator can’t protect you if it doesn’t fit your face. Its that simple. Anything that prevents a good seal-whether facial hair or a hollow under the side of your jaw-is unacceptable. In aworkplacethis fit test will be performed in a very rigid manner by a trained technician. However, for the sailor/occasionalboat yardworker, we offer this shortcut procedure that is far better than nothing.

Scott AV-300 mask

Adjust the facemask to fit. Include any protective equipment you may wear, including goggles, eyeglasses, and hearing protection.

Install organic vapor cartridges if applicable.

Spray a fine mist of perfume into the air, so that it drifts down over your head. For a dust mask or particulate filter, a good dusting of black pepper or a spray of very salty water will also work. Grimace or smile broadly while repeating the alphabet for 15 seconds. Tilt your head up and down and rotate side to side while testing. If you can smell the perfume, you failed the test. If the pepper made you sneeze or you taste pepper, you failed the test. Adjust the straps and start over.

Dont assume the respirator model your dock mate swears by will fit you properly. Like shoes, its not just the size, its also the shape. Choose the one that fits you properly, and the pair it with NIOSH-rated cartridges. It will work.

If you have facial hair, full-face respirators can be more tolerant of mustaches than half-face respirators. Sometimes wetting the whiskers down with Vaseline helps. Trimming is the safest option.

Return any mask that does not pass this fit test. Worse than not functioning properly, it gives you false security.

Each time you use a cartridge-type mask, perform an inward leakage test. Remove or block the cartridges with tape, and try to inhale. It should suck to your face, with no leaks, and maintain the vacuum for at least a few seconds. This confirms you are wearing it properly and that it is not damaged. Adjust until it seals.

Clean after every use; if it isn’t clean, you might forego using it-at great risk. Dont forget to order spare cartridges and parts before you need them.

Darrell Nicholson
Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on sailboats and sailing gear for more than 50 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising. Its independent tests are carried out by experienced sailors and marine industry professionals dedicated to providing objective evaluation and reporting about boats, gear, and the skills required to cross oceans. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser who has been director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division since 2005. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license, has logged tens of thousands of miles in three oceans, and has skippered everything from pilot boats to day charter cats. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida. You can reach him at