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 and other airborne infections. If your face mask does not completely cover your nose and mouth, it will not protect you or anyone else.
Who should wear a face mask
Anyone who wants to wear a face mask to protect themselves and others should do so.
You may be asked to wear a face mask when visiting some health and care settings. The healthcare team will let you know if you need to.
If you have symptoms of COVID-19, cold or flu, it may not be safe to visit a health or care setting. Contact them for advice before visiting.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
Who should not wear a face mask
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
How to wear a face mask
- 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
- 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 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.
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.
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