Face Masks And Face Coverings: Your Absolutely Bumper Guide

As face coverings become mandatory in Melbourne, here's all you need to know about buying, wearing and washing them to beat Covid-19.

It’s now mandatory to wear a mask in Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire, though more Australians in other states and territories are also protecting themselves amid the second wave of coronavirus.

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.

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. Here are a few businesses selling masks, some of which have products aligned with the Victoria Department of Health and Human Services’s (DHHS) guidelines.

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 tightcly 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.

A study published last 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.

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.

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.