Q: What are the different types of face mask and face covering?

A: There are three types of mask or face covering:

  • A fabric mask, bandana or another type of non-medical covering (such as a dust mask from a DIY store)
  • A medical mask (sometimes called a surgical mask)
  • A medical respirator designed to filter out virus particles (e.g. an N95 respirator)


Q: Who should wear a medical face mask?

A: Rules about who should wear which types of mask or face covering vary around the world. Check your local guidelines for advice. However, most guidelines recommend that medical masks are used mainly by healthcare workers and those caring for people with a known infection or with symptoms of the virus themselves. This is what the World Health Organization recommends:

  • Medical masks should be worn by healthcare workers, people with COVID-19 symptoms and people who are caring for people with COVID-19 symptoms.
  • Medical masks should be worn by people over 60 or with underlying health conditions in crowded spaces where physical distancing of one metre or more is difficult and COVID-19 is widespread.


Q: Who should wear a non-medical mask or face covering?

A: Check your local guidelines for advice. The World Health Organization recommends:

  • Fabric and non-medical masks or face coverings should be used by people with no symptoms of COVID-19, where physical distancing of one metre or more is difficult and COVID-19 is widespread.

This could include people serving in shops or restaurants, social workers or anyone in a busy place.


Q: Where should you wear a face mask or covering?

A: Check your local guidelines for advice. The World Health Organization recommends everyone should wear a non-medical mask in busy areas where it is difficult to keep at least one metre distance. This could include:

  • Public transport
  • Shops and workplaces
  • Anywhere that crowds are gathered

In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that ‘people wear cloth face coverings in public settings when around people outside of their household, especially when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.’

In England and Scotland, masks or face coverings are mandatory on public transport. Exceptions are made for children under 11 (England) or 5 (Scotland), people with disabilities or breathing difficulties.


Q: How do face masks or coverings work?

A: Non-medical masks work by trapping some of the particles you breathe, cough or sneeze out, which may be carrying virus particles. This means that if you are infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, you will spray fewer virus particles into the air and people will be less likely to breathe them in. You can be infected and pass on SARS-CoV-2 without having any symptoms.


Q: What is the evidence for using masks or face coverings?

A: A review of 172 studies suggests face masks, including N95 respirators, could result in a ‘large reduction in risk of infection,’ up to 85% lower chance (3.1% chance with a face mask compared to 17.4% chance with no face mask). But this conclusion was stronger for respirators and the researchers say they have a ‘low’ degree of certainty about the results.

However, some doctors think we should use masks or face coverings in the community, as masks are unlikely to be harmful if used properly and anything that helps reduce transmission is likely to be a good thing.


Q: Do masks protect you from coronavirus?

A: Medical respirators, which are closely fitted and made of fabric which filters out tiny virus particles, are designed to protect the person wearing the mask from infection. However, non-medical face masks or coverings work more to protect other people if you have the virus than to protect the person wearing them. They do not filter out all the virus particles when you breathe in, and you may have gaps around the mask that let particles in. We are more likely to be protected if lots of people use masks.


Q: How should you use a non-medical face mask?

A: This is the advice from the WHO:

  • Firstly clean your hands with soap and water or alcohol sanitiser
  • Pick up your clean mask and check it is not damaged or dirty
  • Place it over your face, covering your nose, mouth and chin
  • Do not touch the mask while you are wearing it
  • Clean your hands before removing your mask by the elastic or ties
  • Clean your hands again after removing your mask
  • Wash the mask at high temperatures after each day of use

Remember that a mask alone does not protect you from COVID-19. You should also wash your hands frequently and keep socially distanced from other people as much as possible.

Analysis by EIU Healthcare, supported by Reckitt Benckiser


Reading list

  1. World Health Organization: Coronavirus (COVID-19) advice for the public: When and how to use masks. https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/when-and-how-to-use-masks (Accessed 7 July 2020).
  2. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention: About cloth face coverings. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/about-face-coverings.html (Accessed 7 July 2020).
  3. DK Chu et al. Physical distancing, face masks, and eye protection to prevent person-to-person transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet 2020; 395: 1973–87.
  4. Greenhalgh T et al. Face masks for the public during the covid-19 crisis BMJ 2020; 369 :m1435.