Mask wearing: Is it evolving?

Having lived with the virus for nearly a year, by now, most of us will be a face mask pro. But with the latest news of double-masking and medical masks now being favoured over cotton ones in Europe, we explain the latest evolution to mask-wearing: 

In the past few weeks, many European countries are now favouring surgical and medical-grade masks, pushing aside fabric masks as they are being considered less protective. 

Germany has been the first country leading the way in the new push towards medical masks. Last week the Government introduced new measures making medical masks, such as surgical masks or KN95 or FFP2 masks, mandatory in stores and on public transit. They have also advised the public to wear such masks when in close proximity to others. 

The changes come after raising concerns over the Covid-19 variants and the standard of mandatory face masks. "We must take the danger posed by this variant very, very seriously, and we must slow the spread of this variant as far as possible," said Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Following closely, Austria and France are now advising similarly that medical-grade masks should be worn by the public when in enclosed spaces such as shops and transport. The new favouring of these masks is based on the protection they offer compared to fabric masks.

What's to come for the UK?

Last week it was announced that the London Major and Transport for London (TfL) will be reviewing the current mask guidance for travel in London. Whilst a mask is better than none, the public are being urged by scientists to start wearing medical grade masks. 

A spokesperson for the Mayor said: “The Mayor is determined that Londoners are given the most accurate and up-to-date scientific advice in our fight against the virus. Germany, France and Austria have all recently introduced stricter requirements for face coverings, and it may be necessary to introduce tougher measures here to stop the spread of the new variant, particularly in poorly ventilated locations.

The World Health Organization (WHO) currently recommends that medical or surgical masks should be worn by healthcare workers, people with Covid-19 symptoms, those caring for someone with suspected Covid-19, and anyone aged 60 or over, and those with underlying medical conditions where distancing of at least 1 metre cannot be achieved.

What's the difference between a FFP2/N95  and FFP3?

FFP2 face masks are the equivalent of an N95 mask, they have a minimum of 94% filtration percentage and a maximum of 8% leakage to the inside. 

These masks prevent wearers from breathing in contaminants in the air and are said to be more protective than fabric masks or surgical masks. They are not shaped to your face but are simply held in place by the elastic ear loops and a moldable metal nose clip. They have a typical lifespan of 3-8 hours depending on environmental factors.

FFP3 face masks are the most effective filtration mask, with a minimum filtration of 99% and a maximum leakage of 2% to the inside. 

These masks genuinely fit more snug to the face and typically have a valve to help breathe as the filtration material is much thicker. The valve in a Valved FFP3 helps reduce the buildup of moisture, lengthening the lifespan of the mask. 

However, the WHO has not recommended the use of these masks as they do not protect the people around you and only push out the particles from the vent. Instead, they recommend the Non-Valved FFP3 masks to be worn in public spaces. 

Should you be double-masking? 

In the US, double-masking has become very popular, with the Chief Medical Advisor to the President of America, Anthony Fauci, saying double-masking makes ‘common sense’ to spot the spread of Covid-19. 

Mr Fauci recently NBC: 'If you have a physical covering with one layer, you put another layer on, it just makes common sense that it likely would be more effective, and that's the reason why you see people either double masking or doing a version of an N95.'

But ‘Double masking’, as it's been dubbed, isn't something that has been widely recommended by any health body, such as the NHS - there is little in the way of clinical evidence that wearing two is more effective than one. Overall, wearing one mask with at least two layers should provide adequate protection to the wearing and people around you. 

If you do choose to double mask, make sure the masks cover your mouth and nose and that you can breathe comfortably through them.