Face masks and COVID-19: All you need to know

We take a look at the different types of masks and how best to use them to stay safe and curb the spread of coronavirus.

Face masks and COVID-19: All you need to know
[Illustration by Jawahir al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

Editor’s Note: This series is produced in partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO).

Several countries around the world have made the use of face masks mandatory in public to help curb the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

While some people have opted to wear medical masks, there is an ongoing debate on the effectiveness of fabric masks for the general public and evolving research about the best ways to make these.

Last month, the WHO updated its guidance on masks, recommending that they be worn in public areas where there is a risk of widespread community transmission and physical distancing is difficult, such as on public transport, in shops or other closed settings.

“The main mode of transmission of coronavirus is through respiratory droplets, so the use of face masks is one of the tools we can use to help stop the spread of COVID-19,” Alice Simniceanu, an infection prevention and control specialist at the WHO, told Al Jazeera.

Below, we take a look at the different types of face coverings, usage guidelines and some myths.


Types of masks

Medical masks, also known as surgical masks, are made from a minimum of three layers of synthetic, non-woven materials. These are standardised, designed for single-use and evaluated for filtration efficiency and breathability.

The WHO recommends the use of medical masks for sick people, those with COVID-19 symptoms, health workers, people caring for suspected or confirmed cases, people aged 60 and over, and those with underlying health conditions.

“These masks have some fluid penetration resistance, which is helpful in protecting the wearer from spewing droplets and from droplets getting into their mouth or nose from others,” Simniceanu said.

Interactive: Green read - compare masks

If there is a shortage of medical masks in healthcare settings, face shields may be used.

For the general public, non-medical, fabric masks can be worn as a form of source control to prevent the wearer from infecting others around them. These can be bought or made at home.

Based on academic research shared with the WHO, fabric masks should be a minimum of three layers and can be made from a variety of materials.

“The innermost layer can be cotton, the outermost layer can be polyester or nylon, something that repels droplets, and the middle layer of polypropylene,” Simniceanu explained.

How to wear a mask safely

You should clean your hands before putting the mask on and avoid touching the front of the mask while wearing it.

The mask should cover your nose, mouth and chin and should not be worn under the nose, on the chin, around the neck, or hung from the ear. Do not remove or pull down the mask to talk to someone.


All masks should be removed using the straps behind the ears or head, and you should wash your hands afterwards.

Medical masks should be discarded after a single use or when they get dirty, damp or damaged.

If you plan to reuse fabric masks, these should be stored in a clean, resealable plastic bag. It is recommended that they be washed at least once a day with soap or detergent, preferably in hot water.

It is advised not to wear a mask while exercising as it may make it difficult to breathe. There is also no need to wear one when you are alone in a car or not around people, Simniceanu said.

Mask myths

Masks are not the only solution, nor are they a silver bullet against COVID-19. Hand hygiene and physical distancing should also be maintained as protective measures.

“The biggest myth is that the mask is a magic solution for coronavirus, and it’s not,” Simniceanu said.

In fact, wearing a mask improperly can increase the risk of contamination.

“When people are wearing it around their chin or their beards, and then they pull the mask back up on their face, this is actually adding layers of contamination and putting more pathogens around the mouth which can then lead to infection,” Simniceanu said.

Another mask myth that has been circulating claims that prolonged use of a mask can cause carbon dioxide intoxication as a result of the wearer re-breathing the air they exhaled.

According to the WHO, when worn properly, the prolonged use of medical masks does not cause CO2 poisoning or oxygen deficiencies.

Follow Saba Aziz on Twitter: @saba_aziz

Source: Al Jazeera