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Pharmacist’s guide to face masks

Posted onPosted on 18th Jun

Face coverings will be made compulsory on public transport in England from Monday (15 June) to help reduce the spread of coronavirus as more people return to work.

As Covid-19 is believed to primarily pass from person-to-person through respiratory droplets and contaminated surfaces, when used correctly, face masks can act as a barrier to help prevent the spread of the virus.

However, wearing a face mask is not common practice in the western world and for many people, it will be their first time using them.

From homemade fabric masks to FFP3 respirator masks, Shyam Morjaria, medical director at Nottingham-based UK Meds, shares everything you need to know about choosing and using a face mask.

He said: “Face masks have become as essential to people’s leaving-the-house checklist as keys, wallet and phone, and now, the government is making it a requirement to wear face coverings on buses, trains, tubes and other forms of public transport.”

Do face masks help to prevent COVID-19?

“When you cough or sneeze, tiny droplets of saliva and mucus are released into the air and if a person has coronavirus, the virus could be contained within these droplets. If these droplets are then inhaled by another person – or land on a surface that is touched and then inhaled by another person – they too could catch the virus.

“This is why wearing a face mask can contribute to protecting yourself and others from COVID-19. The masks create a shield from any infected droplets and protect your respiratory system to varying degrees. The level of protection provided will depend on the mask type that you have.

“It’s important to note that face masks do not guarantee 100% protection from viruses though and you should still follow best hygiene practices, such as hand washing.”

What are the different types of masks available?

“Respirator masks, which means they are made of a fabric designed to filter the air or impurities, are based on a grading system to indicate how much protection they offer. First up is FFP1, which is the most affordable option. These protect against materials in concentrations of up to 4x OEL (occupational exposure limit) or 4x APF (assigned protection factor).

“Next is FFP2 (also called N95 masks because they are able to filter 95% of smaller particles), which offers more protection, at concentrations up to 12x OEL and 10x APF. The masks that offer the highest level of protection are FFP3 (also called N99, again, because they are able to filter 99% of smaller particles), which protect against materials in concentrations up to 50x OEL or 20x APF. This is substantially higher than FFP1 and they can block both liquid and solid aerosols.

“Current NHS guidelines stipulate FFP3 face masks are best for virus and bacterial infection control when the contagion is spread through coughing and sneezing, such as with the coronavirus. They are also often used by healthcare professionals when handling hazardous pharmaceutical chemicals.

“Surgical masks are also an option. They are disposable and are sufficient when you are going into areas that are less likely to be contaminated, such as walking outdoors or standing in areas where you know people will practice social distancing correctly.

“The masks need to be disposed of properly after use and how long you can use them for ranges from three to eight hours depending on various external factors and the concentration of the contaminant. While no mask provides complete 100% protection, surgical masks offer a lesser amount of filtration than provided by N95 and N99 masks.”

What about homemade fabric masks?

“Any face covering is better than none, and simple fabric masks can be helpful in preventing the spread of coronavirus. Homemade fabric face masks provide the least amount of protection for all the masks discussed here, but a higher level of protection than not wearing a mask at all. Wear this type of mask when you haven’t any other higher filtration masks available to you.”

Are there any other design elements I need to be aware of?

“Besides the level of protection that each kind of face mask offers, there are also other design elements you may want to consider.

“Unvalved masks mean that the filtration system is built into the fabric, meaning they can be lightweight and fairly discreet. This can make the mask comfortable to wear as they are non-bulky and don’t feel heavy on the face.

“The other alternative is a valved mask. Although this can make the mask slightly bulkier and heavier, as face masks go, it allows air to be let out of the mask. Valved masks are typically less sweaty and stuffy, which can make them more breathable and comfortable to wear.

“Another design element that you can choose between is whether you’d prefer a folded or a moulded mask. Folded masks are very discreet and easy to carry around with you, and the fabric design is quite breathable. They offer a close fit to the face because of the elastic head straps. However, they do not offer a perfectly flush fit.

“If you’re wanting the closest fit possible, a moulded mask is the way to go. These are designed with the shape of your face in mind and fit snuggly to your nose, mouth and chin. This can make the mask more effective as it minimises the risk of particles getting into your respiratory system through any gaps that a looser-fitting mask might leave.”

What type of face mask should I use?

“When it comes to preventing the spread of COVID-19, any type of mask is better than none. Your specific circumstances matter when considering the type of mask to use. Healthcare workers (including family members who care for ill loved-ones) should be using a minimum of FFP2 face masks when in the presence of those who are sick with COVID-19.

“On the other hand, if you are walking out in the public and shopping in areas where people are maintaining social distancing, a fabric mask may be sufficient for your needs.”

How do I put on a face mask?

“First thing’s first, wash your hands with soap and water or use a hand sanitiser gel to ensure your hands are clean before touching the face mask. You should inspect the mask before wearing it to ensure it’s not damaged or broken, but always pick it up by the fastenings, rather than the mask itself (whether that be headbands, ear loops or ties).

“Bring the mask up to your face and secure it. For ear loops, simply hang these over the tops of your ears. For headbands, loop these over your head and adjust so that they sit comfortably. For ties, secure with a bow.

“Pinch the stiff section across your nose until it moulds comfortably. Make sure your mask is fitting comfortably and covering your nose and mouth (adjust if necessary). Wash your hands again.”

Is there anything I need to be aware of while wearing the face mask?

“Once you’ve successfully fitted your face mask, it’s important that you don’t touch it or the rest of your face. Germs can be spread through touching contaminated surfaces and then touching your nose, eyes or mouth so face masks can act as a good reminder not to do this.

“However, you should remember that face masks don’t guarantee complete protection from coronavirus so other good hygiene practices must still be put into action (such as handwashing and social distancing).”

How do I remove a face mask?

“This is potentially the most important step to do correctly. Once you’re ready to remove your face mask, wash your hands with soap and water or use a hand sanitiser gel. Never touch the front of your face mask as this is the part that’s susceptible to contamination.

“Only touch your mask by the fastening such as ties, headbands or ear loops and once you’ve released them, lift the mask away from your face to remove. Again, don’t touch the outside of the mask as it could be contaminated from others. And don’t touch the inside of the mask as it could be contaminated by you (and then transferred to others).

“If your face mask is single use only, dispose of it correctly. Once again, when these steps have been completed, wash your hands or use a sanitiser gel.”

Can I wash and reuse my face mask?

“It depends on the type of mask you’re using. Surgical masks must be disposed of after they’ve been used once. However, fabric masks can be reused, so long as they’re washed in between each use. It’s also possible to buy fully washable face coverings. If you are reusing a mask, a good time to throw it away is once there is visible dirt or damage to it or it has become damp.”

For further health advice or information on UK Meds, visit or call 0115 907 0050 to speak to one of the company’s experts.