Face masks: when and how to wear one

A face mask is a material you wear that covers your nose and mouth. It is sometimes called a face covering.

When worn properly, all types of face masks help to reduce the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus). If your face mask does not completely cover your nose and mouth, it will not protect you or anyone else.

Types of face masks

There are different types of masks available. When used properly and in higher-risk settings, medical masks and respirator masks give better protection from COVID-19 infection than cloth masks. You can buy these in shops and pharmacies.

Read about when you should wear a medical or respirator mask

Medical masks

Medical face masks have 3 layers of light, paper-like material. They are usually white on the inside and blue on the outside. They are sometimes called surgical masks or medical-grade masks.

A blue medical mask with ear loops
A medical mask is usually 3 layers, white on the inside and blue on the outside.

How medical masks work

Medical masks filter the air that goes through the mask but you can inhale some unfiltered air around the edges. There is a band on or in the upper edge that is used to fit the mask around your nose.

Wear medical masks once

You should only wear a medical mask once. You can use the same mask for a few hours if it stays clean, dry and in place. You should not lower your mask below your nose or chin to talk to someone or for any other reason.

When you take off a medical mask, put it in the bin. You should not reuse or wash medical masks. If you reuse a medical mask, it becomes less effective the more you use it.

Respirator masks

Respirator masks often have 4 layers of light, paper-like material. They are usually white on the inside and the outside.

FFP2, FFP3, N95 and KN95 are all types of respirator masks. They are all very similar. Do not use respirator masks with valves.

Respirator masks do not work well on people with a lot of facial hair. They may not work well for children because their faces are smaller.

An FFP2 mask with 2 bands
Properly worn, a respirator mask gives you better protection against inhaling aerosols than a medical mask.

How respirator masks work

When properly fitted to your face, a respirator mask forces all the air you breathe to go through the mask. This means that the air you breathe in and out is filtered.

Good respirator masks usually have 2 bands that go over your head so that they pull the edges of the mask close against your face. This stops any air leaks around the edges. There is a band on or in the upper edge that is used to fit the mask around your nose. A respirator mask should move in and out with your breathing. You should not feel any air leaking under the edge of the mask when you breathe out.

Wear respirator masks once

You should only wear a respirator mask once. You can use the same mask for a few hours if it stays clean, dry and in place. You should not lower your mask below your nose or chin to talk to someone or for any other reason.

When you take off a respirator mask, put it in the bin. You should not reuse or wash respirator masks. If you reuse a respirator mask, it becomes less effective over time. If a reused respirator mask is loose on your face, it cannot work effectively as a respirator mask.

Cloth masks

A cloth face mask is usually made of cotton or silk. It should have 2 or more layers of washable, breathable fabric. Along with medical face masks, they are the most common masks people have been wearing.

Cloth masks do not work as well as medical and respirator masks. It's OK to use a cloth mask if you do not have a medical or respirator mask.

Read about what to look out for when choosing a cloth face mask

Who should wear a medical or respirator mask

Wear a medical or respirator mask if you are:

When to wear a medical or respirator mask at home

People who test positive for COVID-19 or have symptoms should self-isolate (stay in your room).

But if you need to be in the same room as someone else, everyone in the room aged 9 and older should wear a mask. For adults and older children, this should be a medical or respirator mask.

For some children, a medical or respirator mask may not fit well on their smaller face. Children who are 9 or older can wear a cloth mask that fits well in these situations. Younger children may not be able to wear any kind of mask.

How to choose a cloth face mask

When choosing a face mask, make sure it:

  • fits snugly at the side of your face and doesn't leave any gaps
  • completely covers your nose and mouth
  • has 2 or more layers of washable, breathable fabric - if it is a cloth mask

Avoid masks that:

  • are made of material that makes breathing difficult
  • have valves or vents - these are used to protect you from dust and do not offer protection from COVID-19

Do not wear a visor or face shield instead of a mask. They should only be worn if you have an illness or impairment that makes wearing a face mask difficult.

Who should not wear a face mask

You do not have to wear a face mask if you have an illness or impairment that would make wearing a face mask difficult.

Face masks are not recommended for anyone who:

  • has trouble breathing that is made worse by a mask
  • is unconscious or incapacitated
  • is unable to remove it without help
  • has special needs and who may feel upset or very uncomfortable wearing them
  • needs to communicate with someone who has learning difficulties, is hard of hearing or deaf

Wearing a visor will give these people some protection. But they should only be worn if you cannot wear a face mask.

You do not need to ask for a letter from a GP or other certification about your reason for not wearing a face mask.

How to wear a face mask

Do

  • clean your hands properly when you put on and take off your face mask
  • cover your mouth and nose and make sure there are no gaps between your face and the mask
  • remove it from behind - do not touch the front of the mask
  • put medical and respirator masks in a bin when you remove them
  • carry unused face masks in a clean sealable bag such as a ziplock freezer bag, paper bag or cloth bag
  • carry a second similar type bag to put used cloth face masks in

Don't

  • do not touch your face mask while wearing it – if you do, clean your hands properly
  • do not use a wet or soiled face mask
  • do not share face masks
  • do not lower your face mask to speak, eat, smoke or vape
  • do not throw away face masks in public places – you risk infecting others
  • do not put single-use masks in a recycling bin – they cannot be recycled
How to wear a face mask. Cover your nose and mouth.
How to properly wear a face mask
How to stop your glasses fogging up

If you wear glasses and a face mask, your glasses may fog up.

Cleaning your glasses makes them less likely to fog up. There are special wipes for glasses that can help stop them from fogging up.

A well-fitting face mask can also stop your glasses fogging up. It should fit tightly enough to not leave any gaps around your nose.

Place your glasses on top of the seal of the face mask to try to stop your breath reaching up to your glasses. If you cannot do this, try using a small piece of surgical tape to seal the face mask to your face at the gap under your glasses.

When choosing a face mask for your child, make sure it is made for children so that it fits properly.

Medical and respirator masks may not work well for children if their face is small. Use a cloth mask that fits well instead.

Children aged 9 or older must wear a face mask in healthcare settings.

They are advised to wear one on public and school transport. But they do not have to.

Storing and washing cloth face masks

Store your face mask at home in a dry, breathable bag to keep it clean between use. For example, a paper or cloth bag.

Wash your cloth face mask whenever it gets dirty or at least every day.

You do not need to sterilise face masks. Wash them in a washing machine or by hand.

When to throw out a cloth face mask

Throw out a reusable face mask if it:

  • no longer covers the nose and mouth
  • has loose or damaged ties or straps
  • does not stay in place on your face
  • has holes or tears in the fabric

Even when you wear a face mask, you still need to do other things to protect yourself and others from COVID-19. The most important thing you can do to protect yourself from serious illness related to COVID-19 is to get vaccinated.

Last updated: 27 February 2022 at 6pm

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This project has received funding from the Government of Ireland’s Sláintecare Integration Fund 2019 under Grant Agreement Number 123.