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Off to the shops today? Don’t forget your face covering. It’s now mandatory to wear one in shops and on public transport in some parts of the UK, while strongly advised in others. Those caught without one may face fines and even be barred from entering shops and takeaways.
With face coverings being a pretty new concept for most (and plenty of mixed messaging over the past few months), it can be confusing knowing where to begin when wearing one – and why you’d even bother.
That’s why we’ve pulled together all of the latest information into one place to help you on your way to face cover greatness.
What type of face covering should I wear?
There are dozens of types of face mask and face covering out there, which makes things pretty confusing if you’re not sure where to begin when buying (or making) one.
As it stands, the general public are urged to wear face coverings by the UK government. These are different to the surgical and medical grade face masks that healthcare workers wear.
Face coverings can be anything from scarves that wrap around your face to the material face covers you can now buy from lots of high street retailers (it’s worth noting these are unregulated and not considered fit for medical use).
The key rule of wearing a face covering is that it must cover your nose and mouth to work properly. It should also fit well, which means not having loads of gaps at the sides – you want it to fit flush to your face, sitting across the top of your nose and tucking underneath your chin. Jets of air can escape from the back and sides of some masks if they are ill-fitting, a study found.
Bandanas, handkerchiefs and scarves aren’t particularly effective at keeping people’s germs under wraps, studies have found. Instead, experts (including the World Health Organisation) agree the best face covering to wear in public is a homemade one made from three layers of tightly woven material, such as cotton.
Other materials that work well include tea towel and cotton-blend fabrics, denim, and antimicrobial pillowcases. A combination of layers is the most effective – so get creative. Find advice on how to make them here and here.
For people who are in high risk groups – for example, those from Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, or those with underlying conditions – Dr David Strain, a clinician at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital, recommends water resistant surgical masks. Look out for a CE mark when you buy these.
A study published just this week compared the effectiveness of single and double-layer cloth face coverings (the single layer one was made from a folded piece of cotton T shirt and hair ties, while the double layer one was made using the sew method, as set out by the CDC) with a 3-ply surgical face mask (made by manufacturer Bao Thach).
It found the surgical mask was best at keeping germs under wraps, followed by the two-layer covering. The researchers concluded: “Guidelines on home-made cloth masks should stipulate multiple layers.” If in doubt, three is best.
What type of masks should I avoid wearing?
Experts strongly advise against the use of valved masks, commonly bought online. This is because the one-way valve closes when a person breathes in and opens when they breathe out, meaning while the valve doesn’t let germs in (protecting the wearer), it does allow a person’s exhalations to leave the mask.
Therefore it does not protect others and slow the spread of coronavirus in public places. Masks with valves have been banned in some cities and counties in America because of this.
Professor Trisha Greenhalgh, an expert in primary care at University of Oxford, previously told HuffPost UK: “The valve acts like an exhaust pipe, potentially spewing germs out to the environment. Cloth face coverings are the best thing. They stop droplets – that’s why they get wet of course, and you have to change them when they do.
“Droplets contain viral particles so the more droplets get caught in your face covering, the fewer germs get into the air. A valved mask bypasses the barrier and potentially emits the droplets in an explosive gas cloud.”
Hairdressers and shop workers may also wear face shields, however Dr Strain says they are not protective on their own and should be worn in addition to a face covering.
Medical face masks are designed to protect the wearer from infection, and are vital for frontline staff who are at risk from close contact with Covid-19 patients. While these masks – the N95s and FFP2/FFP3s – are “very good”, says Dr Strain, they still need to be reserved for people working in healthcare settings due to shortages. Ethically, buying these up for public use is a no-no.
Where do I need to wear one?
Well, this very much depends on where you’re based. In England, face coverings are compulsory in: shops, supermarkets, hospitals, indoor shopping centres, indoor train stations, airports, ports, and indoor bus and coach stations. The rule also applies to banks, building societies and post offices. It’s not compulsory for shop or supermarket staff to wear a covering.
It’s also compulsory to wear a face covering when buying food and drink to take away from cafes and shops. But people will be allowed to remove coverings if the place where they’ve bought food or drink has somewhere to sit down and eat.
Face coverings will also be made compulsory in museums, cinemas, art galleries and places of worship from August 8.
In Scotland, it’s mandatory to wear face covers in shops and on public transport. A shop is defined as any indoor establishment which offers goods or services for sale or hire. Staff are strongly advised to wear face coverings even when 2m physical distancing is applied.
Face coverings must also be worn on public transport including trains, buses, taxis and private hire vehicles, bus stations and railway stations, airports, ferry services and airline services.
They aren’t mandatory in hospitality premises such as cafes, coffee shops, restaurants or pubs. It also excludes money services businesses such as banks and building societies.
In Northern Ireland, all passengers and staff on public transport must wear a face covering. This includes: on bus, coach and train services; in public transport stations; in indoor areas of a ferry and outdoor areas where you can’t keep two metres social distance. The rule doesn’t apply to tour coaches, taxis or private hire vehicles – that said, some operators may have their own rules you should follow.
Wearing face coverings is advised in places where you can’t easily physically distance in Wales, but is not a legal requirement.
It’s worth noting some people might choose to cover their faces in other settings, too. Dr Strain at the University of Exeter Medical School, believes they should be worn wherever 2m physical distancing can’t be maintained – this includes in workplaces.
The UK government also advises this but it isn’t mandatory. Guidance says people are “strongly encouraged” to wear a face covering in other enclosed public spaces where social distancing may be difficult and where you come into contact with people you do not normally meet.
Who doesn’t need to wear a face cover?
Children aged under three years of age should not, under any circumstances, wear face coverings or masks as it could be dangerous.
Professor Viv Bennett, chief nurse at Public Health England (PHE), said she’s been made aware that face coverings for babies and very young children are available for sale in England – and warned against their use.
“Guidance is clear that children under the age of three years should not wear face coverings or masks,” she says. “These masks should not be used as they are potentially dangerous and can cause choking and suffocation.”
Those who are exempt from wearing face coverings in shops and on public transport include:
Children under the age of 11 (or under the age of 5 in Scotland)
People who have a physical or mental illness or impairment, or a disability that means they cannot put on, wear or remove a face covering.
People for whom putting on, wearing or removing a face covering would cause severe distress.
People travelling with, or providing assistance to, someone who relies on lip reading to communicate.
People travelling to avoid injury or escape the risk of harm.
Why bother wearing a face cover?
The whole point of face coverings is to protect the people around you, in case you have coronavirus but aren’t showing any symptoms (also known as being asymptomatic).
This is because face coverings can help keep most of the droplets you expel from your nose and mouth under wraps. Therefore if everyone wears a face cover, it means there are fewer droplets being expelled into the air in indoor spaces, meaning fewer droplets for people to breathe in and a lower overall risk of catching Covid-19.
Multiple health experts have suggested wearing face masks and coverings is key to preventing a second wave in the UK – and studies suggest this too.
A study from the US used a statistical method and calculated that more than 66,000 infections were prevented by the wearing of face masks in little over a month in New York City. Another study found countries where mask-wearing is the norm and has been supported by government policy have had lower death rates from the virus.
Still wondering why you’d bother if the science says it’s not 100% effective? Professor Peter Chin-Hong, an expert in infectious diseases from the University of California, San Francisco, puts it quite simply: “The concept is risk reduction rather than absolute prevention. You don’t throw up your hands if you think a mask is not 100% effective. That’s silly. Nobody’s taking a cholesterol medicine because they’re going to prevent a heart attack 100% of the time, but you’re reducing your risk substantially.”
If everyone wore a face covering it would also encourage more people to feel safe when out and about, which could in turn have a positive impact on the economy.
Can wearing a face cover protect the wearer, too?
While most of the focus is on protecting those around you (rightly so) there’s also some evidence to suggest face coverings do offer a protective effect – of sorts – to the wearer.
An analysis, conducted on behalf of the Royal Society and British Academy by researchers from the University of Oxford, looked at existing studies that have compared the protection of the wearer who wore a cloth mask compared to those who didn’t wear a mask.
Across four studies that looked at wearing cloth face masks versus not wearing masks at all, wearing a cotton mask was associated with a 54% lower risk of infection compared to the no-mask group. “It is not 100% protective but does reduce your odds,” said lead author Professor Melinda Mills, from the University of Oxford. In short, it’s better than nothing.
Researcher Jeremy Howard wrote in a separate report that there’s plenty of evidence that DIY masks are useful at protecting the wearer. But effective protection depends on three “critical” things, he said. Firstly, material: does the mask filter particles of the appropriate sizes? Secondly, fit: could particles squeeze in through the gaps of your mask? And lastly, sanitation: can you clean and re-use the mask?
How to put on and take off a mask
When wearing a face covering you should:
wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds or use hand sanitiser before putting it on
avoid wearing on your neck or forehead
avoid touching the part of the face covering in contact with your mouth and nose, as it could be contaminated with the virus
change the face covering if it becomes damp or if you’ve touched it
When removing a face covering:
wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds or use hand sanitiser before removing
only handle the straps, ties or clips
do not share with someone else to use
if single-use, dispose of it carefully in a waste bin and do not recycle
if reusable, wash it in line with manufacturer’s instructions at the highest temperature appropriate for the fabric
wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds or use hand sanitiser once removed.
How is best to clean my face covering?
If you’re buying up disposable surgical masks, the top line is: you can’t clean it. This is because they’re made from a material that degrades pretty quickly. Paul Hunter, an infectious diseases expert and Professor in Medicine at University of East Anglia, previously told HuffPost UK they’re “essentially made out of paper”.
Some people have been trying different approaches – including disinfecting them to try and reuse them – but he stressed that their make-up is quite complex. In the centre of the masks is a material that’s better at trapping viruses, he explained, but if that gets wet, damaged or displaced during the washing process, the mask becomes “useless”. It’s important to remember your breath alone on the mask will be enough to slowly disintegrate it. A general rule of thumb: they should be replaced (and binned) after three hours, said Prof Hunter.
With cloth face coverings, the World Health Organisation (WHO) advises people to wash with soap or detergent “at least once a day”. It’s wise to check the washing instructions your mask came with if you bought it from a shop, but ultimately people should aim to wash them at 60 degrees Celsius and use detergent (which basically dismantles the virus). “It can go in with other laundry,” says the UK government’s advice page on face coverings.
You can dry your cloth mask by popping it in the tumble dryer if you have one, or laying it flat somewhere. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US recommend placing the cloth face covering in direct sunlight to dry. A study published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases found that 90% of coronavirus particles deactivated within 10 minutes when exposed to ultraviolet light from the midday sun.
Store the face covering in a clean, plastic, resealable bag so it’s fresh and ready for when you next need it.
The downsides of face covers
Comfort, or lack of it, is often cited as one of the key reasons people don’t wear face coverings or masks, in addition to fears over looking silly. But it’s important to remember we’re all in the same boat – and we’re wearing them for a crucial reason: to protect other people. The death rate of sales and retail assistants is 75% higher among men, and 60% higher among women than in the general population. Wearing masks in shops helps keep shopkeepers safe, likewise wearing them on public transport helps keep drivers and fellow members of the public safe.
There’s a risk that improper removal of face masks, handling of a contaminated face mask, or an increased tendency to touch the face while wearing a face mask might increase the risk of transmission – if you’re wearing one, the bottom line is: try not to touch your face.
There are worries people will fall into a false sense of security when wearing one. You should think of them as part of a four-pronged approach in addition to physical distancing, hand washing and sanitising regularly, and catching coughs and sneezes in tissues before binning them.
Another important thing to note is that face covers are not an alternative to self-isolating. If you get symptoms of Covid-19, you must self-isolate for seven days and get a test. Unless your test shows a negative result, you must not go out during this time, even with a face covering.
How can I look after my skin while wearing a face covering?
One consequence of wearing a face covering, especially in the warmer weather, is that some of them can irritate the skin. Dermatologists suggest cloth face coverings are less likely to cause skin problems compared to the PPE (personal protective equipment) used by healthcare workers.
That said, the general advice is to make sure your skin is well hydrated by drinking lots of water throughout the day and applying a layer of moisturiser, ideally water-based, at least 30 minutes before putting the mask on. When you’re not in an indoor space surrounded by strangers, take your mask off to give your skin a breather.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.