We’ve heard on numerous occasions over the past year that we should be wearing a face mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but what hasn’t been outlined quite so clearly is what type of face mask we should be wearing. In this article, we’ll examine whether you should be wearing a face mask with a filter and what level of protection it can provide you.

How do different masks work?

Medical masks

Medical masks, or surgical face masks, are loose-fitting disposable masks that are meant to protect the wearer from contact with sprays, droplets, moisture or liquids that may contain germs. Medical masks also filter out larger particles, such as dust, which the wearer might breathe in.

Medical masks are made from three layers of synthetic material and are designed to have filtration layers in the middle to offer greater protection. You can purchase medical masks in different thicknesses and there are designs with different levels of fluid-resistance and filtration too.

N95 masks

An N95 mask, such as an FFP2 face mask, is a form of respirator which offers more protection than surgical masks, filtering large and small particles from the air when the wearer breathes in. However, these types of masks have been in shorter supply and are typically reserved for health care providers and those on the front line caring for patients and those with COVID-19. These types of masks are designed to be disposable, just like surgical masks.

Medical masks and respirator masks are similar in terms of the level of protection they provide, but respirators are best suited to specific procedures and instances as they have a tightly fitted component in them. For this reason, they are designed for medical and healthcare workers or areas where aerosol-generating procedures are carried out.

Cloth masks

Cloth masks are intended to trap droplets of moisture that are released when the wearer talks, breathes, sneezes or coughs. They can also protect the wearer from inhaling droplets from other people. To get the most protection from cloth masks, you should choose those which are made from multiple layers of tightly woven fabrics, such as cotton, which will prevent droplets from getting through more effectively.

Face masks are effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19, when used in conjunction with other measures such as washing your hands regularly, limiting contact with people outside of your own bubble, and staying indoors as much as possible. Face masks shouldn’t be used as a replacement for social distancing, though.

Getting the most from your face mask

In order to ensure your mask is as effective as possible, you should make sure that it is well fitted to the contours of your face, to prevent as much airflow around the edge of the mask as possible. Your mask needs to be snug over the nose and chin without any gaps, and there should be no air coming out under the edge of the mask.

The best kinds of masks have a bendable nose strip that allows the wearer to mould it to their nose, to prevent gaps and keep a snug fit at all times. Make sure that you store and clean your mask properly each time you use it too, putting it on and taking it off after you’ve thoroughly cleaned your hands. You should try to avoid touching your mask as much as possible when you’re wearing it, in case any germs are spread from your hands to your face, or vice versa. Cloth masks can and should be cleaned regularly in hot water and used masks should be placed in a bag until they can be taken home to be cleaned.

Does my mask have to have a filter?

According to the World Health Organisation, if you’re working in a clinical setting as a healthcare worker; caring for someone who is suspected to have or has been diagnosed with COVID-19; you’re unwell with symptoms of muscle aches, a cough, sore throat or fatigue; or if you’re awaiting test results from COVID-19 testing, you should wear a medical mask.

Medical masks are also advised for the following people, as they are at higher risk of falling ill to the disease:

  • Those aged 60 or over
  • Those with an underlying health condition such as chronic respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, obesity, immunocompromised people, cancer or diabetes mellitus

If you’re a member of the general public, under the age of 60 and don’t have any underlying health concerns, a non-medical fabric face mask can be used to protect you from airborne germs.