The role of face masks in protecting against COVID
Face masks are a crucial PPE item, they help to cover the face and nose, protecting the respiratory airways from possible airborne infection.
Updated: Monday 16 October 2023
What is personal protection equipment?
Personal protection equipment (PPE) consists of different garments or specialised items, commonly worn by healthcare staff and professionals in hospitals to reduce the risk of infection when exposed to viruses. PPE consists of specialised garments such as face masks, visors, gloves and gowns. PPE has become critical in helping to keep frontline health workers, key workers, patients and members of the public safe in the fight against coronavirus and reduce the transmission of COVID-19.
As lockdown restrictions begin to ease and we begin to return to work, the government advice on ‘staying safe outside your home’ recommends that face masks and coverings should be worn in public spaces, such as public transport and shops, to reduce the risk of transmission. The government highlights that the use of face coverings and face masks should form part of a combined strategy in addition to following social distancing and strict hygiene measures.
How are face masks meant to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection?
Face masks are a crucial PPE item, they help to cover the face and nose, protecting the respiratory airways from possible airborne infection. Face masks help to minimise the viral load or volume of expelled air from an infected person when they cough, sneeze or project infected water droplets. This is particularly important due to the fact that COVID-19 can cause asymptomatic symptoms, where the carrier may not even be aware they have the virus but they can still infect others. The use of face masks to reduce the transmission risk from an infected person to a healthy person is called source control, where advice and equipment such as face masks are essential to reduce the risk of subsequent transmission. Face masks are also reported to reduce the amount of times someone touches their face, decreasing the risk of hand to mouth transmission. Typically, face masks that are well-fitted to the face with minimal air leakage and have a high quality filtration material are more effective at protecting against airborne infection and infection from respiratory diseases such as COVID-19.
Use of PPE and face masks should be done in conjunction with other hygiene measures such as hand washing, use of hand sanitiser and social distancing. The World Health Organisation (WHO) emphasises not to rely solely on face masks to prevent infection, whilst face masks are seen as a useful piece of equipment, the scientific support is relatively weak.
Do face masks work - what does the evidence suggest?
The evidence reporting the efficacy of face masks is conflicting, however, the general consensus is that face masks and face coverings do offer added protection from viruses. The existing level of doubt surrounding the use of face masks for protection against viral infections originates from some studies not reporting significant results. However, there are multiple studies that emphasise the significant role of face masks when used alongside other hygiene measures such as use of hand washing and hand sanitiser. This is reinforced by research published in response to COVID-19, that highlights the inclusion of face masks in government strategy from multiple countries to reduce the risk of infection for individuals most vulnerable to infection. Furthermore, the use of face masks for those who are at a high risk of infection is outlined in the WHO guidelines.
The latest government advice outlines that healthy members of the public should try to wear face coverings in public to reduce the risk of infection transmission as lockdown begins to ease.
Why has there been confusion around using face masks to protect against COVID-19?
The World Health Organisation (WHO) currently does not outline the need for the use of face masks for healthy individuals, unless they are showing COVID-19 symptoms or caring for someone with COVID-19]. The WHO does advise the use of face masks for high risk individuals such as front line health professionals. This contrasting stance on face mask efficacy does appear to be a little confusing and somewhat contradictory. An explanation for this is that while the WHO acknowledges the protective role of face masks, they do not fully endorse the use of them by healthy individuals to avoid short supply and a lack of PPE for those who are most vulnerable. Now that the COVID-19 infection peak has passed, face masks have been made more readily available. Certified face masks offer the most reliable form of face covering available, especially for those in high risk environments such as commuting on public transport where social distancing is difficult to maintain.
What are the different masks available?
There are a range of face masks available to decrease the risk of COVID-19 infection. Popular face mask models consist of the KN95, FFP2, N95 and certified surgical masks. While originally the KN95 was a highly-recommended face covering, in July 2020 the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) warned that a “substantial” number of masks on the market were claiming to be of KN95 standard, but instead provided “an inadequate level of protection” and were “likely to be poor quality products accompanies by fake or fraudulent paperwork”
Face Mask 3 Ply - Type 2R
- 3 Ply (3 Layers) to enhance filtration
- Certified to EN (EU) Standards for reliable protection
- Fluid resistant material to protect against infected airborne water droplets
- Comfortable and breathable
- Cost-effective face mask option
Which is the most effective face mask?
Surgical masks are highly effective, and offer protection against infected water droplets typically spread by coughing and sneezing. Our 3 ply (type 2R) surgical masks are EU certified, offering high quality protection against respiratory infection.
It is important to purchase face masks from a trusted source; to ensure that masks are safe, reliable and meet the necessary quality standards. With the lockdown restrictions beginning to ease, person to person contact and being in close proximity with people is becoming more and more likely. Therefore, in order to stay safe and healthy, it is important to wear PPE such as face masks and to minimise the risk of infection and transmission.
- 1. GOV. 2020. Coronavirus (COVID-19) Guidance and support. Stay safe outside your home.
- 2. Cheng, K.K., Lam, T.H. and Leung, C.C., 2020. Wearing face masks in the community during the COVID-19 pandemic: altruism and solidarity. The Lancet.
- 3. BBC. 2020. Future: How to avoid touching your face so much.
- 4. Saunders-Hastings, et al. 2017. Effectiveness of personal protective measures in reducing pandemic influenza transmission: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Epidemics, 20, pp.1-20.
- 5. Feng, S. et al. 2020. Rational use of face masks in the COVID-19 pandemic. The Lancet Respiratory Medicine, 8(5), pp.434-436.
- 6. World Health Organisation. 2020. Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public: When and how to use masks.
- 7. Greenhalgh, T., Schmid, M.B., Czypionka, T., Bassler, D. and Gruer, L., 2020. Face masks for the public during the covid-19 crisis. Bmj, 369.
- 8. Use of face masks designated KN95