COVID-19: Will my face mask actually keep me safe?

While wellness should always be a priority, the Covid-19 pandemic has made us all put our health first. To protect from infection, we wash our hands frequently, sanitise everything we touch, and wear face masks around other people. But is your face mask actually keeping you safe from the coronavirus and healthy?

Not all face masks offer the same level of protection. Some face masks are barrier masks only intended to block droplets of liquid, while other masks are considered respirators that can filter particles from the air. Even respirator masks provide varying levels of protection. To help you better understand how much protection your mask can truly provide from diseases like the coronavirus, let’s look at these differences a little more closely.

Homemade Cloth Masks

Homemade (or professionally sewn) cloth masks provide the lowest level of protection against airborne pathogens. These masks cannot filter out disease particles themselves, but they do make it less likely that droplets from contagious coughs or sneezes make it to healthy people. Research hasn’t shown that they are proven effective against particles as small as the coronavirus, though.

The other problem with cloth masks is that they are designed primarily to protect others, not you. They do not have a firm seal around the mouth, which means that infectious particles can still be breathed in, regardless.

Surgical Masks

Surgical masks are disposable medical-grade masks intended to prevent surgeons and other doctors from infecting vulnerable patients. They also protect against splashes of fluids (such as large droplets from coughs or sneezes). Like cloth masks, surgical masks are barrier masks that are primarily intended to protect others, not yourself, since they do not seal tightly against the face.

In Europe, authorities rate surgical masks according to three levels of bacterial filtration efficiency (BFE1, BFE2, Type R). These all have to do with how well they keep bacteria, viruses, and diseases inside the mask, not how well they protect the user. By design, surgical masks do not protect against airborne infectious agents, so these face masks will not necessarily protect you from contamination by a virus like coronavirus.

Respirators

Respirators are the only types of face masks that are designed to protect the wearer from particles in the air. These face masks filter out dust, pollution, and aerosols, but also bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other infectious agents that cause serious diseases.

There are three levels of protection offered by disposable particle respirators:

  • FFP1: FFP1 masks are usually called dust masks because they are most commonly used to protect wearers from sawdust during construction projects. They provide the lowest level of protection. FFP1 masks can provide protection equivalent to 4x OEL or 4x APF by filtering out at least 80% of particles.

  • FFP2: FFP2 masks (equivalent to N95 masks in the US or KN95 masks from China) are the most commonly used respirators. They provide moderate to high levels of protection. FFP2 masks can provide protection equivalent to 12x OEL or 10x APF by filtering out at least 94% of particles. These masks meet WHO mask recommendations and are considered medical-grade.

  • FFP3: FFP3 masks provide filtration in especially hazardous situations, such as when handling asbestos. They provide the highest possible level of protection. FFP2 masks can provide protection equivalent to 50x OEL or 20x APF by filtering out at least 99% of particles.

Which mask should I use to protect against Covid-19?

Ultimately, any mask is better than no mask at all. You are much more likely to stay healthy following all WHO safety precautions, including proper mask use. That said, caregivers and anyone at risk of interacting with potentially sick people not yet showing symptoms need to protect themselves with the right level of filtration. Coronavirus is a tiny disease, so only FFP2 and FFP3 respirators can generally protect the wearer from breathing in Covid-19 particles. If you need that level of filtration to keep you healthy, an FFP2 mask or FFP3 respirator is likely the best choice for you.

Keep your loved ones safe with PPEs

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