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Face Masks vs Coronavirus

In this article we’ll look at face masks and their effectiveness against COVID-19.

Are Face Masks Effective Against Coronavirus (COVID-19)?

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?

In England, by law you must wear a face covering in the following indoor settings (unless you are exempt or have a reasonable excuse):

  • public transport (aeroplanes, trains, trams and buses)
  • taxis and private hire vehicles
  • transport hubs (airports, rail and tram stations and terminals, maritime ports and terminals, bus and coach stations and terminals)
  • shops and supermarkets (places which offer goods or services for retail sale or hire)
  • shopping centres (malls and indoor markets)
  • auction houses
  • premises providing hospitality (bars, pubs, restaurants, cafes), except when seated at a table to eat or drink (see exemptions)
  • post offices, banks, building societies, high-street solicitors and accountants, credit unions, short-term loan providers, savings clubs and money service businesses
  • estate and lettings agents
  • theatres
  • premises providing personal care and beauty treatments (hair salons, barbers, nail salons, massage centres, tattoo and piercing parlours)
  • premises providing veterinary services
  • visitor attractions and entertainment venues (museums, galleries, cinemas, theatres, concert halls, cultural and heritage sites, aquariums, indoor zoos and visitor farms, bingo halls, amusement arcades, adventure activity centres, indoor sports stadiums, funfairs, theme parks, casinos, skating rinks, bowling alleys, indoor play areas including soft-play areas)
  • libraries and public reading rooms
  • places of worship
  • funeral service providers (funeral homes, crematoria and burial ground chapels)
  • community centres, youth centres and social clubs
  • exhibition halls and conference centres
  • public areas in hotels and hostels
  • storage and distribution facilities

You are expected to wear a face covering before entering any of these settings and must keep it on until you leave unless there is a reasonable excuse for removing it. You should also wear a face covering in indoor places not listed here where social distancing may be difficult and where you will come into contact with people you do not normally meet. Face coverings are needed in NHS settings, including hospitals and primary or community care settings, such as GP surgeries. They are also advised to be worn in care homes.

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.[2] 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.” [3]

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 [1] 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.

Reusable Face Coverings

A YouGov survey in August 202 found that reusable face coverings are the most widely used face covering, with 69% of people who took the survey saying this is what they use. However, the same survey then reveals that only 13% of those people wearing reusable face coverings are wearing and maintaining them in a way that is helpful to stopping the spread of Covid-19. [6] While reusable masks help to reduce the environmental impact of single-use masks, it’s still important to ensure you are not putting yourself at risk.

To ensure you are correctly looking after your reusable face covering, it should be hand or machine washed after every use, and then tumble or air dried. Once it is completely dry, if you are not going to use it right away, it should be stored in a clean, re-sealable bag – not in your pocket or at the bottom of your bag. When you’re ready to wear it, use clean, disinfected hands to remove it from the bag by the straps.

You may find it useful to have more than one reusable face covering that you can use on rotation between washes.

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.” [4]

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.

View Masks


[1] WHO - When and how to use masks

[2] NPR - Models for the months to come

[3] - Reporting on wearing a face mask

[4] WHO - Coronavirus Q & A