An update to our previous post: Should I wear a face covering?

By now, many of us have built up a small collection of reusable face masks that we have on rotation. But with the new variant spreading quickly and reports from overseas about higher-grade medical masks being required in some public places, it is time to take stock of what you’re using to cover your face.

Growing concerns about the faster-spreading COVID-19 variants have prompted France to ban certain homemade masks from being worn in public in favour of higher-grade ones, while Germany and Austria now require ‘filtering face piece’ (FFP) masks to be worn on public transport and in shops.

There is no such change here yet, though a BSI Flex Standard is in development which would set a minimum limit on filtration efficiency (i.e. how well the mask blocks particles from escaping).

The advice until now has largely been that for the public, reusable face coverings are a more practical, economical and environmental option than higher-grade medical masks, which are needed by healthcare professionals and are often single-use, and require specialist fitting to be effective.

For now, this advice still stands, though the World Health Organisation (WHO) does advise if you are older or vulnerable to consider wearing a disposable surgical mask in some circumstances.

But if your reusable masks are looking a bit tired and worn, don’t fit well, or only have one or two layers, it’s time to upgrade your personal protective arsenal.

There are big differences between how effective different face coverings are. As a general rule, more layers are better, though you’ll also want to be able to breathe comfortably.

What is an FFP mask and do you need one?

FFP masks are designed to protect the wearer from breathing particles in, as well as filtering exhalations. These masks must comply with British Standard EN149:2001 and be CE marked. FFP masks should be moulded to the face, to create a seal where no air can slip out. They are labelled one, two or three, according to filtration efficiency.

FFP2 and FFP3 masks filter above 94% and 99% of bacteria respectively, so these are the ones being referred to. FFP2 respirators are roughly the equivalent of N95 masks in the US or KN95 respirators in China.

However, they aren’t very practical for everyday use by the public on a global scale, for cost, environment and supply reasons.

They’re mostly single use, so the impact on the environment is significant, and keeping up a regular supply of these will take a toll on your finances too. If there’s a sudden rush to buy these masks, we could be facing similar concerns about lack of PPE for frontline staff as was seen last spring.

The other caution is that these masks really need to be fitted properly to do the job – otherwise air will just escape around the edges (particularly if you have any facial hair).

Reusable masks can have highly effective filtration

The French ban on homemade face coverings applies to ‘fabric masks with lesser filtering qualities’ of around 70%.

The worst offenders are the single-layer stretchy masks.

The face coverings that were rated highest for filtration are able to block more than 99% of bacterial particles penetrating the mask material.

It should be noted that coronavirus particles can be much smaller (as little as 0.1 micrometre in diameter), but measuring bacterial filtration efficiency is the standard test for products of this type and gives an idea of how well face coverings provide a barrier for particles generally, using bacteria as a proxy.

Upgrading your face covering

There are several options for improving how effective your face covering is:

New mask, more layers – opt for a mask with either two layers and a filter pocket or three layers. Make sure it fits your face snugly. If you have a larger or smaller face, look for a mask that has several size options or adjustable straps for a closer fit.

Additional layers – if you have an unused filter pocket, you can either buy some disposable filters, or try using kitchen roll or coffee filters, both of which add another layer of filtration to your mask.

Read more at the Which magazine website


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