PM2.5 vs. PM10: The Difference in Particle Air Pollution

PM2.5 and PM10 are the two types of air pollution that the WHO estimatesmore people than any other pollutant,” but they are different.

PM2.5 vs. PM10

The difference between PM10 and PM2.5 is size. But let me back up. “PM” refers to particulate matter—particles in the air. Those particles are things like organic dust, airborne bacteria, construction dust, and coal particles from power plants (for example, check out this study from researchers in Shanghai who analyzed what those particles are really made of).

Does Size Matter?

Now onto size. The “10” and the “2.5” refer to microns (AKA micrometers). Microns are tiny. Here’s an idea of how small microns are compared to human hair:


pm2.5 pm10 hair sand difference


Next, there’s a hidden (unlabelled) detail in the terms “PM10” and “PM2.5.” That is the “smaller than” piece. Each pollutant type is defined as that size and below. So PM10 is particles 10 microns and below. The difference is that PM2.5 is 2.5 microns and below. (That means PM10 includes PM2.5.)


PM2.5 Particle Size Bacteria Virus

What PM2.5 is Not

Finally, it’s helpful to think of what PM is not. Particulate pollution does not include gas pollutants like ozone and NO2.

For fellow nerds curious to read more about PM2.5:

  1. I describe how governments measure PM2.5 here (including the trick of how they get rid of any particles in the air larger than 2.5 microns).
  2. I describe what PM2.5 does to our bodies in this answer and why it doesn’t kill like people think it does.
  3. In this answer, I detect PM2.5 in my home in Beijing and test whether a simple DIY air purifier I made can clean it up.

Breathe safe!

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