A User’s Guide to Face Masks and PPE

17 July 2020 | Daniel Hollyman

Wearing a face covering will become mandatory in shops and supermarkets in England from 24th July. All forms of public transport already require you to wear them, so if you haven’t got one already, you might want to start thinking about it – face masks are here to stay.

The scientific community supports the use of face masks in public spaces. Wearing a face covering, even when you feel well, can prevent the spread since people can still transmit viruses without showing any symptoms. According to Public Health England, that’s actually the main reason to wear a mask: to protect other people from you.

Face coverings also offer the wearer some protection, although how much varies depending on the fabric, fit and breathability of the mask. No mask will offer you full protection, and they should not be viewed as a replacement for social distancing measures, frequent hand sanitation and avoiding crowds. When you combine mask wearing with those measures and PPE, that’s when they can make a real difference.

At a time when many people are understandably concerned about their health and safety amidst a global pandemic, having a basic understanding of Personal Protective Equipment and what options are available to you may save someone’s life, or indeed your own.

Masks vs Respirators

It’s important to clarify on a technical difference between a ‘mask’ and a ‘respirator’.

Face masks are loose-fitting masks designed to cover the mouth and nose. The vast majority of day to day masks worn by key workers and the general public fall into this category. This type of mask only offers one-way protection – to capture bacterial or viral cells during coughing or sneezing from reaching other people. Standard face masks generally do not conform to higher medical safety standards and are not designed to protect the wearer. However, before you go and throw yours in the bin, remember that they do protect others around you.

Respirators on the other hand are tight fitting masks designed to create a facial seal. Non-valved respirators provide good two-way protection by filtering both the inflow and outflow of air. The most common respirator type is N95 – a disposable respirator designed to protect the wearer. You may have seen builders wear N95’s to protect them from dust particles.

The US Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) both cite the N95 respirator as part of recommended PPE against bacteria and viruses. According to research from the US, the N95 has a filter capacity of at least 95% particle removal – not complete protection, but far superior than your standard face mask.

Here in the UK and Europe, we use slightly different standardisation. The FFP2 / P2 standard respirators are the European equivalent to the N95. Using a similar design and filter system, these respirator types achieve at least 94% filter capacity – again, highly effective in wearer protection and relatively cheap to buy.

Making your own cloth mask

As demand for face masks outstrips supply, many people have turned to more traditional methods to protect themselves – making their own. There are several patterns and fabrics available, including cotton, linen or even t-shirts and bandanas.

There’s a great guide on how to make your own mask from the John Hopkins University.
Here are some general tips on what to look out for when making your own:

♦ Make sure the mask covers your nose and mouth without any large gaps. The mask should be fitted with ear loops or ties so you can adjust it.

♦ Try and use at least 2 layers of fabric – studies show that the more layers, the more protected you are as there is less chance of virus particles getting through.

♦ Thicker, more densely woven cotton fabric are best.

♦ Hold the fabric up to the light – the fewer tiny holes you can see, the better the filter capacity.

♦ Ensure your mask is as comfortable as possible – many people cite inconvenience and discomfort as main reasons why they don’t wear one.

Always remember that face masks, cloth masks and respirators can mitigate the transmission of bacteria and viruses and all have their benefits, even though they don’t offer complete protection. Medical professionals strongly recommend their use, particularly as part of a wider range of measures including social distancing, frequent handwashing and sanitation.