What face mask should I wear to protect myself from Coronavirus?

With the UK government, and many other countries, recommending the use of face masks and face coverings as lockdown measures from the Covid-19 pandemic ease, it may be confusing to understand the differences between types of masks, coverings and respirators and which one you should opt for. In this blog post, we break down the differences and similarities to help you make informed decisions if you wish to wear one. In a previous post we discussed why people wear masks; for virus as well as pollution reasons. 

The current UK guidance as of 11 May 2020 states that people should wear face coverings:

- on public transport and in some shops
- in other "enclosed spaces where social distancing is not always possible and they come into contact with others that they do not normally meet" 
- face coverings or cloth face masks should be worn and not surgical masks or respirators which should be left for healthcare staff and other frontline works. 
- Face coverings are not a replacement for social distancing and regular hand washing which remain the most important actions. 

Whilst wearing a face mask or covering is commonplace in many Asian countries - in the West there isn't as much understanding of why and what each type of face covering or mask does. 

two people wearing face masks

Why wear a mask or face covering? 

Many viral infections are spread by droplets from coughs, sneezes and speaking – these are quite large when they first come out as a sneeze or cough but they become smaller as they travel through the air and become aerosolised. These droplets can also be picked up from surfaces by touch and subsequently touching the face (which is why hand hygiene is so important in controlling the infection.)

Surgical and respirator masks are for use in a professional, medical or front line capacity and not intended for everyday use by the public.
A cloth face mask is meant to block the source of infection if you have coronavirus but are asymptomatic. The idea is that if you wear a mask you are protecting others from any virus you could spread, and the mask they wear is protecting you. 
In some circumstances, face coverings can help reduce the risk of transmission and they may be beneficial in places where it is hard to follow maintain social distancing measures - for example, using public transport or when visiting shops. 

Surgical masks and respirators are part of Personal Protective Equipment for healthcare and frontline workers and should not be used by the public for their day to day use.

Medical Face Masks:

Seen in hospitals and medical environments - medical (surgical) masks are fluid resistant and provides the wearer against large droplets, splashes or sprays of bodily or other hazardous fluids. It also protects others from the wearers' respiratory emissions (e.g. breathing, coughs and sneezes). They usually contain 3 layers: a mix of non-woven fabric and a middle meltblown material that acts as a filter. 

They tend to be looser fitter and cover the mouth and nose area - because of this they cannot provide the wearer with protection from possibly inhaling smaller airborne particles. They are also good to help the wearer from touching their face with possibly infected hands.

woman wearing surgical mask

Respirator Masks

Respirator face masks protect the wearer inhaling potentially hazardous airborne particles. They also require a user seal check every time they are put on the wearer and come in various sizes. 

The structure of a respirator mask is meant to fit against the face tightly and are made of sturdier material than surgical masks. They contain a respirator filter that is intended to prevent much smaller particles from passing through to a person’s respiratory system. N95 and N99 are the two most common types and mean that they prevent 95% and 99% airborne particles from entering the nose or mouth. They provide protection against solid and liquid aerosol particulates that do not contain oil – including dust particles related to metal, wood, pollen.

n95 respirator mask

**It is currently NOT recommended for the public to use respirator or medical masks – largely due to the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) that the UK, and other countries has faced. These sort of masks should be reserved for frontline staff and key workers only.**

Nanofiber Filters:

Nanofibers have been used as a performance layer in industrial air filtration for many years. The electro-spinning process creates a very fine, continuous and resilient fibre of 0.2-0.3 micron in diameter forming a web that can collect dust, dirt and contaminants on the surface of the filter. 

While respirator masks are not suitable for prolonged periods of use, nanofiber filter masks can be. The filters in respirator masks utilize electrostatic activity to trap particles and so washing these devices would destroy their filtration capabilities; nanofiber filters are able to work even with contact of moisture. The efficiency of nanofiber filters are based on mechanical filtration and therefore work well even in contact with moisture. Since human breath itself is humid, in a normal respirator, just by wearing it and breathing through it, you partially discharge the filter, thereby reducing filtration efficiency. In the respirator, filtration efficiency is further decreased by wearing, as the fiber gradually becomes clogged. In the case of nanofiber filters, clogging occurs significantly less due to the density of nanofibers that hold dirt on the surface.

FaceGuard: Nanofiber filter face mask/scarf

man wearing faceguard face mask

The CYCL FaceGuard is an example of a face mask or covering that utilises nanofiber filter and offers a high level two way protection. With correct handling and usage you can feel a lot more confident when out and about during these times where there is still uncertainty on the behaviour of the coronavirus. 

Each FaceGuard Scarf comes with an integrated nanofiber membrane that consists of a layer of nanofiber filtering membrane and an extra fine layer of polypropylene meltblown sandwiched by two layers of polypropylene spunbound. 

The way polypropylene spunbound is manufactured results in a consistent web of material with uniform fibre distribution and high tensile strength. Polypropylene undergoes a laminating process - making penetration of fluids and bacteria more difficult. Polypropylene meltblown on the other hand, has relatively weak tensile properties however, it has smaller fibres and a larger surface area taken up by the fibres so therefore has excellent wicking and barrier properties. Together they can create a strong product which offers a barrier to fluids and particles. 

Cloth Face Masks

Cloth face masks or coverings with or without filters can either bought or made from items you may have at home. For a cloth face mask to be effective it needs to have at least 3 layers and is tight fitting around the face. There are also masks available that have been been developed for allergies and pollution protection that will do a similar job, these often come with inter-changeable filters. 

DIY Face Coverings

A face covering can be made from things you already have at home – even using an old T-shirt or sports socks, there are many great tutorials online. 

General advice

Whilst the WHO has expressed doubts that homemade fabric face masks will offer full protection for the wearer, they have noted that they could stop an unknowingly infected person passing the virus onto others. 

In general, any mask or face covering needs to be worn in a certain and handled carefully to ensure they provide adequate protection. They need to fit tightly and cover your nose and mouth and must be handled from the back. Ensure that the mask fits comfortably as a badly fitted mask risks slippage and discomfort which will increase the desire for you to touch your face. It is important to wash the face covering or mask you use after every day of use and to not touch the mask during the day if taking it off. 

Wearing a mask does not replace other key virus avoidance measures such as washing your hands frequently for soap for over 20 seconds and socially distancing from others. When handling your mask you should wash your hands with soap and water before and after putting on or removing the mask and to refrain from touching the face whilst wearing. 

Information was correct as of 19 May 2020

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