Why You Need a Face Mask in the Coronavirus Pandemic

Why the United Kingdom should encourage, not discourage, use of face masks.

Posted Apr 06, 2020

If you live in the United Kingdom, you might be wondering why the government and many media reports have been advising people that they do not need to wear face masks yet they are common in many other countries and some countries have even made them mandatory in supermarkets and other public spaces. You might be wondering whether or not you should wear a face mask. Here are some important things to remember.

1. Social distancing can’t fully protect against coronavirus

Social distancing or ‘lockdown’ laws in the UK ask people to stay at home unless absolutely necessary. The laws rightly allow people to shop for essentials, exercise, work or help a vulnerable person but this means that people are still at risk from infected air in workplaces, supermarkets, buses, trains, elevators, and stairways in apartment or office buildings. Air can become infected when someone coughs, sneezes, breathes out or talks, and infected air might travel as far as 2 metres away (or farther). Therefore, social distancing can’t fully protect you. That is even if people are not coughing or sneezing because air can become infected when people breathe or talk. Effective social distancing can be impossible to achieve in supermarket aisles, some workplaces, on buses, trains and communal spaces. Wearing a face mask can be a useful extra precaution in addition to (not instead of) social distancing to protect yourself and others.

2. Wear a clean, well-fitting face mask for short durations

Before wearing a face mask, seek medical advice if you suffer from breathing problems, a respiratory condition, or any relevant medical condition. If you decide to wear a face mask, make sure that it is clean before you wear it so that you do not get bacterial or viral infections from the mask itself. Don’t touch your face mask without washing or disinfecting your hands because your hands might be infected from touching a surface, such as a shopping trolley. Throw away a dirty mask if it is disposable. If your face mask is washable use hot soapy water, rinse it in water with an appropriate disinfectant, dry it and store it in a clean bag every time you use it. Choose a well-fitting mask that has an appropriate layer of coverage. Research is needed to clarify the relative protective effects of different types of face masks, including whether or not dust masks typically used to protect people from toxic paint or DIY fumes offer protection against coronavirus. Do not wear your face mask for long periods of time because moisture and bacteria in your breath can turn your face mask into a source of infection. Speak to your employer if you would like access to a face mask that is suitable for wearing over a longer duration of time.

3. Not all face masks are suitable for healthcare workers

You might have heard that wearing a face mask deprives hospitals and other healthcare organisations of vital supplies for staff, but you should be aware that not all face masks on sale are actually items that hospitals would ever buy. They do not all meet appropriate standards for use in hospitals and other clinical settings therefore buying a face mask does not necessarily mean that you are depleting resources needed by healthcare staff. The solution to the shortage of face masks for healthcare staff is for governments to encourage manufacturers to make more of them, and to prioritise orders from healthcare organizations before selling them to the public.

4. Choose the right face mask from a reputable source

Seek advice from your healthcare provider or a reputable source to help you choose among different types and sellers of masks. Some face masks are not quality-controlled and they might be of poor quality, meaning that your risk of breathing in or exhaling infected air remains high. Some face masks might be recycled or manufactured/stored in unhygienic conditions, putting you at risk of bacterial or viral infections. You should therefore buy your face mask from a reputable company that meets government regulations about effective hygiene in manufacturing, storing and transporting of face masks. Governments can help consumers by introducing regulatory standards for face mask manufacturers and sellers, and by giving approved face masks a hallmark of quality so that consumers can make a decision about the right mask to buy.

5. Don’t touch your face

Don’t touch your eyes, nose, mouth, mask, or any part of your face without washing or thoroughly disinfecting your hands. Viruses and bacteria can be transmitted by touching your face or your mask after touching a surface that someone with COVID-19 has touched after holding their hands near their mouth or nose when they coughed, sneezed, or blew their nose. It is important to wash your hands regularly to reduce the risk of touching your face with infected hands. Likewise, if you are coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose use a tissue, throw it away, and wash your hands immediately. Do not eat or handle food before washing your hands properly.

6. Do other things to protect yourself

Follow official guidance about how to behave during the pandemic. Wearing a face mask is one of many things you can do to protect yourself and others. Continue social distancing and washing your hands regularly, assume that every surface or object is infected and disinfect surfaces or items that you buy. Wear gloves when touching public surfaces if you do not have immediate access to washing facilities or hand sanitiser, and dispose of the gloves. Work from home if possible, avoid public transport and avoid highly populated public places.

7. Don’t let conformity hold you back

A month ago it was very unusual to see people wearing a face mask in the UK. It is still uncommon to see a face mask, therefore, you might feel the pressure to conform to the idea that you do not need to wear a face mask but remember that protecting yourself and others is more important than conformity. Wearing a correctly fitted, clean face mask can reduce the probability of breathing in infected air, and it can reduce the probability (if you have coronavirus) of infecting other people.

Wear a face mask in addition to (not instead of) good hygiene, social distancing and other precautions against coronavirus.