The information in this article is correct at the time of writing. Stay up to date with current guidance here.
By now, we’re all used to wearing a face covering when we visit the supermarket, use public transport or attend a GP appointment. In fact, the government says you should wear a face covering in any indoor place where social distancing might be hard, or where you’re likely to come into contact with people you don’t normally meet.
Who should you wear a face covering?
There are exceptions of course. Children under the age of 11 and those with certain disabilities are exempt, and Asthma UK says that people with asthma should not wear a face covering if they find it hard to breathe through it. But for those who don’t fall into these categories there are consequences to not wearing a face covering in locations where one is required. These range from being refused entry to a shop or not being allowed into a station or onto a bus, to receiving a fine of up to £200 (reduced to £100 if you pay within 14 days and it is your first offence). This doubles for repeat offenders up to a maximum fine of £6,400.
Will a face covering protect me?
Probably not. Face coverings are mainly intended to protect those you come into contact with by limiting the spread of large droplets when you cough, sneeze or speak rather than filtering out small virus particles.
"The large droplets that are expelled when we speak, cough or sneeze are heavily infectious if you have coronavirus," says GP Dr William Bird, founder of Intelligent Health. "When you sneeze, you expel about 30,000 droplets at 200mph. "An interesting modelling study done on New York showed that if 80% of people wore face coverings that were just 50% effective, then the death rate from coronavirus over two months may be reduced by up to 45%."
Using a cloth face covering (it could be a scarf or bandana) to protect the people around you from the droplets coming out of your mouth and nose is called ‘source control,’ says Trish Greenhalgh, Professor of Primary Healthcare Science at the University of Oxford, who explains that using a face covering is a bit like using a handkerchief: "It’s soft, pliable and absorbent and even though it’s not 100% effective, it’s much better than not using one.”
According to the World Health Organization, people are most infectious in the first three days after the onset of symptoms. However, people can be infectious before they become symptomatic and others might have Covid-19 but remain asymptomatic, so wearing a mask minimises the risk of unknowingly passing on coronavirus to someone else.
It’s important to remember that Covid-19 can be spread by touching a surface that someone who is carrying the virus has also touched. For this reason, you should still socially distance, avoid touching your face and wash your hands often, even if you and those you have come into contact with have been wearing a face covering.
Best face coverings to buy now
How do I wash a face covering?
If you’re using a reusable face covering, you’ll need to wash it after every use. This means that if you’re going out more than once a day, you’ll need to have two or more clean, reusable face coverings ready.
Katie Mortram, Appliance and Household Testing Manager at the Good Housekeeping Institute, has the following advice for laundering reusable fabric face coverings:
"Wash according to the manufacturer’s guidance at the highest temperature possible with biological detergent – ideally over 60°C. Do not use a quick wash setting as you want the wash to be thorough. Wash after every use and wash your hands after removing the mask. Alternatively, you can hand wash your face covering by submersing in freshly boiled water for 15 minutes, along with a biological detergent."
After washing your face covering, it’s advisable to waterproof it so that viruses and bacteria cannot pass through the fabric. It’s not necessary to do so after every wash – but the best way to check if your face covering repels liquid is to put a few drops of water on the surface – if it beads on the surface, it’s good to go – if it absorbs it, we recommend soaking in a proprietary waterproofing product.
We tried and can recommend Nikwax’s range, which includes Cotton Proof for cotton/polycotton or canvas face coverings and TX Direct for fully synthetic coverings. Both products are free from any nasty chemicals, so you won’t be breathing in anything dangerous the next time you put it on.
What's the difference between a face covering and a face mask?
A face covering is a piece of cloth that covers your nose and mouth. Face masks include surgical masks, dust masks and respirator masks that have a filter built in, known as N95 masks.
The guidance is that you should not purchase medical-grade masks as they’re needed for frontline staff who are working in high-risk settings dealing directly with coronavirus patients.
"Health and social care workers are carrying out procedures such as swabs and intubation, and exposed to bodily fluids," says Dr Bird. "They are exposed to a high viral load (the amount of virus a person is exposed to) and so it’s important that medical masks and other PPE is available to protect them."
How do I choose the right face covering?
The most important thing to remember when choosing a face covering is that you want something that is comfortable, especially if you’re going to wear it for a long period of time or multiple times a day. You should only wear face coverings once and then dispose of or launder them.
“Comfort is important – you’re more likely to fiddle with or remove a mask that isn’t comfortable. This increases the risk of contamination,” says Dr Sarah Jarvis, MBE. “In addition, an ill-fitting mask is more likely to slip down off your nose. This removes most of the protection to those around you. You may find that a face covering with a flexible wire over the bridge of the nose is easier to fit and less likely to slip off.”
You can also decide what fastening you choose for your face covering. You can either opt for elastic that fits around the ears or a covering with straps which you tie behind your head. “It’s largely a question of preference and making sure the covering fits closely,” says Dr Jarvis. “Again, it’s important that the covering doesn’t slip down over your nose. If you have arthritis or stiffness in your hands, you may prefer elastic that fits around your ears. It’s essential that you don’t touch your face at all with your hands when you are putting on or removing the mask.”
Is a disposable face covering better than a reusable one?
Whether you choose a disposable or reusable mask is totally up to you. Disposable masks have to be put in the bin after every use, so this is worth thinking about if you are going to use it multiple times a day or want a mask that’s more environmentally friendly.
However, reusable masks require washing after every use. “It’s important to remember that you should never put a mask on twice without washing it,” says Dr Jarvis. “For a reusable one, store it in a plastic bag until you wash it and remember to wash your hands after storing it.”
How can I use a face covering correctly?
"Wash or sanitise your hands before and after putting it on, and then don’t touch it again until taking it off by using the ear loops only," says Dr Bird. "If you touch the covering while it’s on or as you’re taking it off, you risk passing the virus to your fingers and infecting yourself or others via that route."
When fitted correctly, the face covering should cover both your nose and mouth, and you should not be struggling to breathe through it.
If you wear glasses, make sure your face covering fits snugly, advises optician, Andy Hepworth, who fits Optifog anti-fog spectacle lenses. “This allows air to flow out of the bottom or sides of the mask and away from your glasses,” he adds.
How can I make my own face covering?
There is a whole host of online tutorials on how to make your own fabric face coverings, along with companies that sell them. Those that are made with two layers of cotton cloth will suffice.
The Government has produced a guide on how to make your own face covering and instructions on how to wear it here.
To make a no-sew version from an old from a T-shirt (preferably in a small size), or make a sewn cloth face covering from two, 25cm x 25cm squares of cotton fabric and two 20cm pieces of elastic (or string or cloth strips).
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