This article has been medically approved by Superintendent Pharmacist Shilpa Shailen Karia, MRPharmS. - GPhC Reg No: 2087328
Face masks are a hot topic at the moment, but how much do you know? Read our article below for more information on types of face mask, their uses, and how to both properly wear and dispose of them.
Do I need to wear a face mask?
As of the 15th June 2020, people using public transport in England are required to wear a face covering at all times. Failure to comply could result in being refused travel or face a fine. From the 24th of July you are also required to wear a face covering at all times in shops. These rules will be enforced by police and those not complying may face fines of up to £100.
The NHBF has also advised that salons and barbershops "should strongly encourage clients to wear a face covering in enclosed public spaces such as salons and barbershops where social distancing may be difficult and where clients come into contact with people that they do not normally meet.". 
How about at other times?
The World Health Organization (WHO)  currently recommends:
- If you are healthy, you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person with suspected COVID-19 infection.
- Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.
- Masks are effective only when used in combination with frequent hand-cleaning with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.
- If you wear a mask, then you must know how to use it and dispose of it properly.
Do face masks work?
This is a very broad question. There are many different types of masks that offer differing levels of protection. For example, a paper surgical mask will offer less protection than an FFP3 Level respirator.
Different types of masks
Paper Surgical Masks
Paper surgical masks, although the most widely available, are not the best option if you are looking to prevent viruses from getting in. However, they are more suited to prevent droplets, that potentially carry the virus, from getting out. It is estimated that as many as 1 in 4 people will contract the virus without showing any symptoms or falling ill. These people are known as ‘carriers.’ Wearing a paper surgical mask can help to protect those around you, as you may be unaware that you are a carrier.
George Gao, director-general of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, says “The big mistake [they are making] in the U.S. and Europe, in my opinion, is that people aren’t wearing masks. This virus is transmitted by droplets and close contact. Droplets play a very important role—you’ve got to wear a mask, because when you speak, there are always droplets coming out of your mouth. Many people have asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic infections. If they are wearing face masks, it can prevent droplets that carry the virus from escaping and infecting others.” 
If you choose to wear a paper surgical mask, it should ideally be 3-ply or triple layer.
A respirator has the ability to filter particulates (dust, smoke, mist), gases, and vapours. There are three classes of respirators FFP1, FFP2, and FFP3.
- FFP1 masks filter the least of the 3 masks. They have an aerosol filtration of at least 80% and are mainly suited to be used as a dust mask.
- FFP2 masks have a minimum aerosol filtration of at least 94%. These masks are mainly used in construction, agriculture and by healthcare professionals against influenza viruses. (These are known as N95 masks in America).
- FFP3 masks offer the most filtration. With a minimum of 99% filtration, they protect against very fine particles like asbestos.
How do I wear a face mask?
The correct use of a face mask can make all the difference for its effectiveness. The World Health Organization  recommends:
- Before putting on a mask, clean hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.
- Cover mouth and nose with mask and make sure there are no gaps between your face and the mask.
- Avoid touching the mask while using it; if you do, clean your hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.
- Replace the mask with a new one as soon as it is damp and do not re-use single-use masks.
- To remove the mask: remove it from behind (do not touch the front of mask); discard immediately in a closed bin; clean hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.
Stay Home, Stay Safe
Even with the above considered, the most effective protection against COVID-19 is social distancing. Staying at home as much as possible and staying over 2 meters away from others when out and about will significantly reduce your chances of becoming infected. COVID-19 is not an airborne virus, it is spread through “small droplets from the nose or mouth which are spread when a person with COVID-19 coughs or exhales. These droplets land on objects and surfaces with people then catching COVID-19 by touching these objects or surfaces, and then touching their eyes, nose, or mouth. People can also catch COVID-19 if they breathe in droplets from a person with COVID-19 who coughs out or exhales droplets.” 
If you feel that wearing a mask would help you to touch your face less, or you cannot guarantee that you will be maintaining 2 meters distance from others, then you might deem it appropriate to wear one. You should always consider official advice along with your personal situation when deciding whether to use one.