October 21st, 2020 by
The wearing of face coverings has now become commonplace and it is mandatory to wear them in public spaces (with some exceptions for health reasons) such as shops, public transport, and even bars and restaurants when not seated at a table.
So, which type is best? Actually, that’s a bit of a misnomer as different masks offer different levels of protection and each will be suited to a different application. It is therefore very useful to understand the purposes of mask-wearing and the different protections that each type offers.
Here is our guide to face masks in the UK.
There is clearly a world of difference between medical-grade face masks, that are worn in clinical settings. and a homemade cloth face covering, commonly worn by members of the public going about their daily business. Here is an overview of the different types of face mask, and the environments that they are suitable for.
FFP stands for Filtering Facepiece and is a type of respirator mask. This type of mask consists of a facepiece and a filtering device. The filter type determines the level of protection offered, usually FFP1, FFP2, or FFP3. The higher the number, the better the protection:
FFP1: Low-level dust and water-based mists
FFP2: A minimum of 94% filtration percentage and a maximum of 8% leakage to the inside
FFP3: A minimum of 99% filtration percentage and a maximum of 2% leakage to the inside
FFP2 is equivalent of N95 masks and meets the guidelines set by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for protection against covid-19. FFP3 masks will usually include a valve to help you breathe (partly because the material is thicker) and this also helps to reduce the build-up of moisture which increases the length of time you can wear it.
FFP masks usually fit close to the face to create a seal and are designed to protect the wearer as they are tested in the direction of inspiration (outside to inside), account for leakage, and measure filtration efficiency. FFP2 and FFP3 are effective at protecting the wearer from viral transmission.
These offer the highest protections and are the type worn in medical settings, including covid wards.
Type I and Type II Masks
Type I and Type II masks are medical, also knowns as surgical, masks. They are also available in Type I and Type II R masks. They are measured by BFE, bacterial filtration efficiency:
Type I and Type I R: 95% BFE
Type II and Type II R: 98% BFE
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Type I and Type II are of a 3 ply construction which prevents large particles reaching others, however, they are not effective when blood or bodily fluids are present. Type I R/Type II R is 4 ply, which also prevents large particles from reaching others but includes a splash-resistant layer to protect against blood and other bodily fluids.
These masks are tested in the direction of exhalation (inside to outside) which means they predominantly protect others from the wearer, though the waterproof layer of Type I and II R masks will offer some protection from viruses. These are often worn in lower-risk medical settings such as surgery, non-covid wards, and dentistry.
Remember, of course, that PPE is often worn for reasons other than virus protection such as in construction to protect from dust and other airborne particles like asbestos.
Other face coverings
The masks mentioned above are mainly used in clinical settings. While government regulations require people to wear face coverings in public spaces, these can be anything that covers the nose and mouth. The main objective of wearing face coverings for the general public is to protect others from the wearer. It works best when adopted en masse, in particular, to protect others from people who may be infected but don’t have any symptoms and are therefore unaware that they have the virus.
How to use masks and face coverings for maximum protection
How you wear your face covering is as important as which type you wear. Disposable masks should be disposed of after every wear and washable ones should be washed, at a minimum of 40°, after every wear. If you have to wear them for long periods, for example, if you wear one at work for up to 8 hours, you should change them several times during that period.
While it can be tempting to just keep one handy in your bag or pocket so you always have one, repeat use will vastly diminish the efficacy of the covering. Keep your nose and mouth covered at all times and try to touch them as little as possible while wearing.
A splash shield can offer some additional protection as well. It’s a good idea to wear one if you can’t wear a mask on medical grounds. These should be disinfected after each wear.
Which is best?
Clearly, in terms of personal protection, FFP masks offer the wearer the best defence against covid-19. However, be aware that those in high-risk professions, such as doctors and nurses, should always have priority on stocks of medical-grade PPE. Other masks and face coverings will offer the general public protection if worn appropriately and cared for properly.
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