Coronavirus face masks: what types of face coverings are there - and how effective are they?

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Whether the public should wear face masks or not to prevent the spread of coronavirus is an issue that has come under much debate

At present, the World Health Organisation (WHO) is currently only advising those who are sick and showing symptoms of the virus to wear a mask, such as coughing or sneezing, or if you are caring for someone with a suspected coronavirus infection.

Aside from this, masks have only been deemed necessary for use in a medical setting, but now experts are recommending the public should wear homemade masks when they venture outdoors.

Is the UK changing its guidance on face masks?

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The WHO is currently only advising those who are sick and showing symptoms to wear a mask (Photo: Shutterstock)The WHO is currently only advising those who are sick and showing symptoms to wear a mask (Photo: Shutterstock)
The WHO is currently only advising those who are sick and showing symptoms to wear a mask (Photo: Shutterstock) | Other 3rd Party

Experts from the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) met on Thursday (23 Apr) to debate the issue and have now finalised their advice, Downing Street has confirmed.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said the Cabinet was told that the recommendations from Sage have now been submitted for ministers to consider.

Scientists have passed on research showing that coverings could help to stop asymptomatic people from passing on the virus, and claimed the UK’s current policy on masks does too little to prevent infections.

While experts believe that face masks won’t prevent people from catching the virus, they could help in preventing it being spread to others.

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A decision based on the advice is yet to be announced by the government.

The PM’s spokesman said: "They have finalised their advice. Ministers will now be reviewing this to decide on any further action that might be needed.”

What types of face masks are there?

There are generally three different types of face masks that can be used to protect against coronavirus, according to Healthline.

These include:

- Homemade cloth face masks

- Surgical mask

- N95 respirators

How effective are each type of mask?

Homemade face masks only offer a small degree of protection, but can be effective in preventing the spread of coronavirus from people who are asymptomatic.

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They can be made at home from common materials, with cotton t-shirts, pillowcases and tea towels found to be most effective as they capture particles while still remaining breathable.

They also may help lower the risk of catching the virus from coughs or sneezes, and are especially useful in situations where social distancing is hard to maintain, such as on public transport.

Surgical masks also don’t fully protect against coronavirus, as air particles can still be inhaled through the sides of the mask.

These masks are typically used to protect from sprays and large particle droplets, helping to prevent the spread of potentially infectious secretions.

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N95 respirators are a more tight-fitting face pasy, and can filter out 95 per cent of very small particles, including viruses and bacteria.

Some types have an exhalation valve attached, which can help with breathing and the build-up of heat and humidity.

While they can protect against smaller respiratory droplets, they are not currently recommended for use outside of healthcare settings.

How should I wear and dispose of a mask?

If you are going to wear a mask, the WHO recommends cleaning your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub, or soap and water, before putting it on.

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You should cover your nose and mouth with the mask, and make sure there are no gaps between the mask and your face.

Avoid touching the mask while you are using it - and if you do, thoroughly wash your hands after.

Replace the mask with a new one as soon as it is damp, and do not reuse single use masks.

The mask should be removed from behind - do not touch the front of it - and immediately discard it in a closed bin.

Wash your hands again after you have disposed of it.