From today, Friday, 24 July, covering your face while shopping is become mandatory in England.
It already was in Scotland, where rules came in on 10 July, while in Wales and Northern Ireland, residents are encouraged to wear coverings in shops and supermarkets but it is not required by law.
Wales is making masks on public transport a legal requirement form July 27, they are already mandatory in the rest of the UK.
However, Wales is the only place where official rules say what sort of mask you need to wear – a three-ply one – everywhere else it’s left up to you.
Anything from coverings including a scarf to a bandana, disposable tissue masks, cloth masks, builder’s dust masks, respirator masks are acceptable.
So how effective are the many types of face coverings, how much difference do they make to keeping people safe and can homemade ones do just as good a job?
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One of the most common medical-grade masks, the N95 designation means it’s effective at stopping 95% of airborne particles reaching the wearer.
The classification is a US one, with the European standard being FFP.
That means N95 it can apply to a range of different mask types – from paper surgical ones to cycling-style pollution masks.
These are often also washable and re-usable – although make sure you use the correct settings to ensure they are properly sterilised after use.
Disposable hospital masks classed N95 are effective for 8 hours, and designed to be thrown away.
However, surgical-style N95 masks are not officially allowed to be recommended for use by the public in Europe – however, the Covid-19 pandemic has seen a more flexible approach being taken.
These work in the same way as N95s, the main difference being they are rated to filter 99% of particulate matter, rather than 95%.
These are surgical-style disposable masks, similar to what you’d expect to see medical staff wearing in hopitals.
They are designed to stop people spreading infection, rather than protecting the wearer.
To be certified Type one, the masks have to be 95% effective at filtering bacterial infection from the wearer – ie from inside to outside. That also means they frequently qualify as N95 masks too.
The R designation indicates they also have a splash-resistant layer to protect against bodily fluids hitting them.
They are generally constructed from three layers of paper, with a pleated design and ear loops or ties.
Type II face masks are also made of paper, typically with a 3-ply construction, and designed to stop particles leaving the wearer and hitting other people or surfaces.
The main difference between these and Type I masks is that they are better at filtering out infection particles – being rated at 98% efficiency rather than the 95% of Type Is.
Type IIR face masks are often describes as “surgical grade”.
Made up of a 4 ply construction, these masks also include a splash-resistant layer to protect against bodily fluids.
One of the key differences between Type I and Type II masks and “respirator” masks is that one tests how good the mask is at stopping you infecting people, and the other how effective it is at cleaning the air you breath in.
Respirator masks measure the filtration of the air you breathe, Type I and Type II measure the effectiveness of the mask at stopping what you breathe, cough or sneeze out reaching other people.
Ideally, of course, a mask would do both – and most do.
However, masks with valves on them are designed to only clean the air you breathe in.
That makes exhaling far easier, but also means the air going through them is barely filtered at all.
FFP2 face masks are a European standard for respirator masks.
That means they’re designed to stop things getting to the wearer, rather than from the wearer to others.
FFP2 face masks – the equivalent of N95 face masks – must filter at least 94% of particles with no more than 8% leakage to the inside.
The masks aren’t shaped to your face, instead being held on by an elastic earloop or similar.
They have a typical lifespan of three to eight hours depending on environmental factors.
FFP3 filter at least 99% of particulate matter and leak no more than 2% to the inside.
They are better shaped to your face and often have a valve to help you breathe as the filtration material is thicker.
They also often have valves to cut moisture build up in the mask and meaning it has a longer lifespan.
However, while the valves on masks help you breathe without letting anything in, they also let particles escape them, making them far less useful in preventing the spread of a virus.
You can buy cloth face masks in a wide variety of patterns sold by everyone from ASOS to Vistaprint – or pick them up on the high street from the likes of Sainsbury’s, Asda or M&S.
Cloth masks’ big advantage – aside from the variety of colours and patterns – is that you can wash them at home.
However, not all masks are created equal.
The key question in terms of effectiveness is whether they have a pocket for a filter or not.
By adding a filter, a simple cloth mask can be raised to FFP2 or N95 effectiveness.
Filters are typically rated on the PM (particulate matter) scale – with the smaller the number, the better it is at filtering things out of the air.
You need the PM number to be smaller than 3 for the mask to be as effective as a Type I or Type II mask as described above.
Masks made from T-shirts, scarfs and the like meet legal requirements for face coverings in England and Scotland.
In terms of effectiveness, they also perform better than you might think – although not as well at protecting you as they are at protecting others.
A study by Cambridge University found that homemade masks filter 69.4% of particles the size 1 micron and even 51% of particles sized 0.02 microns (even smaller than a virus is).
Which means that, while not as effective as other rated mask types, they do still offer useful protection.