As the coronavirus pandemic continues, attention is being turned towards the precautions necessary to re-open and re-start communities and economies, including the use of voluntary or obligatory a face mask.
While in many cases masks remain a personal choice, there are some instances and some countries in which masks are officially required in public. In the UK, for instance, the push has been to make masks a requirement on public transport.
I won’t get into my personal beliefs on the politics or the advice previously given on masks. I’ve been wearing a mask since the end of March, sadly only being able to get one a short while after I may have contracted the virus. I still don’t know whether it was or wasn’t covid-19, but I’ve shared my symptom experiences here for those that may be interested.
With the increasing demand for face masks, what are the different types available and where can you get them from?
What Are Respirator Masks For?
There are a few types of masks and coverings. Face masks with no quality rating, face coverings with a layer(s) of fabric, surgical masks, and industry graded masks, referred to as respirator masks. Respirator masks are sometimes also known as particle masks or particle filter half masks. They cover the nose and mouth and should fit snugly to the face.
Respirator masks are designed to filter the air of different particles, such as dust, aerosols, smoke or fine liquids. Potentially dangerous and damaging particles can be a threat to the body in different ways, such as with radioactive components or risks to the respiratory system. Others may offer much lower protection, such as just against obnoxious smells of certain chemicals.
They predominantly protect the wearer, but in the case of coronavirus many unvalved masks can also help to protect others if the wearer is infected. No mask is a guarantee of protection against coronavirus. Not enough is known about the virus in terms of mask effectiveness in filtering it, and the virus is also thought to be able to enter the body through the eyes. This is why a face visor gives another layer of protection both to the mouth/nose and the eyes.
Face Mask Ratings
Respirator masks offer differing levels of protection and a grading system indicates the level they offer. When ‘leakage’ is mentioned, this refers to air leaks from and around the mask. Air leaks can often happen if the mask isn’t correctly fitted. Most of these P1, P2 and P3 masks have bands that go around the head, which ensures a closer, more secure fit compared to the ear loops on general face coverings.
What Do FFP1, FFP2 and FFP3 Mean?
FFP is an abbreviation for ‘filtering facepiece’.
FFP1 is the lowest of the three levels and as such offers the least protection. These are for environments that aren’t fibrogenic or poison, filtering at least 80% of particles up to 0.6 μm and with a total leakage maximum of up to 25%.
FFP2 is the mid-way point. This is the equivalent of the N95 class of face mask. These masks offer protection from both fluid and firm particles, including the likes of dust and aerosols. Total leakage here is a maximum 11%. The FFP2 protection class is often chosen during the coronavirus pandemic for offering greater protection than a P1 mask but are usually cheaper than a P3 alternative.
FFP3 is the maximum protection class, used for protection against poisonous, radioactive or deleterious types of particles. These are required by different healthcare providers like the NHS for use in bacterial and viral infection control. Total leakage maximum is 5%. Such masks filter 99% of all particles up to 0.6 μm.
What Are N95 or KN95 Masks?
The N95 is the US class equivalent of the European FFP2, they just use different classification systems.
The N95 and KN95 are roughly an equivalent rating. N95 is the US standard, where as KN95 is the Chinese standard.
The criteria for the US and China ratings are very similar and both have a filter performance of 95% or higher. N95 masks should therefore filter out, and thus protect the wearer from breathing in, those airborne particles as small as 0.3 microns in diameter. The coronavirus is estimated to measure 0.12 microns, but some studies are suggesting masks can capture a considerable amount of even nanoparticles. An N95 is the minimum standard usually recommended during the coronavirus pandemic.
Valved or Unvalved?
A face mask with a valve allow some carbon dioxide out of the mask when you breathe out. When you breathe in, you’re not using the valve so the valve is not detrimental to your protection. However, it’s thought possible that some air filtered out could, if the wearer is infected, contain nanoparticles of the virus, which could spread to those around the wearer.
Moulded or Fold Flat?
There are generally two types of typical P2 and P3 masks: soft and folding, and cupped or moulded. There are also much bigger masks, usually made of rubber and sometimes with in-built goggles, with filters that can be replaced. In terms of comfort, these aren’t as likely to be comfortable all day.
When it comes to pre-formed/cupped and softer folding masks, softer and more pliable options are better for protecting against the virus when they form a closer fit. Cupped may be too big or too small, and there’s little room for adjusting them to your face shape. If you’re going for a moulded mask, it may be best to try one first rather than spending the money on several just to ensure they will fit adequately. A soft / folding flat face mask on the other hand will usually form a better fit around the face. With greater flexibility, you’ll be able to adjust around the side of your face and chin, and firmly adjust the nose piece to ensure there are no gaps.
Safe & Effective Face Mask Use
It’s important to fit, wear and remove masks safely and effectively. There are articles and videos online that demonstrate the best way to do this. Never to touch the inside of your mask, especially when your hands aren’t clean. Keep in mind that the band around the head or the ear loops may be contaminated, as may your hair. After removing the mask, if you intend on reusing it, make sure to store it safely, keeping the head band away from the inside of the mask. I roll mine in kitchen roll, to keep the loops away from the mask opening, and then I put the mask into a cardboard box underneath the dining table.
As for whether or not to re-use respirator masks, this is a hotly debated issue among individuals, healthcare providers and manufacturers. Most respirators are designed to be disposable, single use masks. However, given their cost and the waste, many people take to re-using their mask. I can’t give advice or suggestions on this, I can only tell you what I do. There’s no guarantee as to the methods to de-contaminate masks, such as with rubbing alcohol, and masks like 3M P2s aren’t supposed to get wet. I re-use my P2 masks several times, but I have two in use and rotate them with alternate usage, making a note of which mask I wore on the calendar. I only do this providing I can be sure I’ve done everything I can to fit, remove and store the mask safely.
You’ll find that over time masks develop an unpleasant smell and the elastic of the headband will start to loose its shape. I personally don’t feel it’s safe or healthy to wear these for several hours and re-use repeatedly over several weeks, as there will be a build up of particles and bacteria. Never over-use masks and use your best judgement if you choose to do this. Alternatively, some face coverings, such as the fabric masks and hand-made coverings, can and should be washed and re-used.
Where Can I Buy A Face Mask?
Supermarkets, Discounters & Corner Shops
A few months after the virus became a pandemic, the availability of masks is starting to increase. However, most of these are either fabric reusable masks or disposable surgical masks below N95/P2 standards. If these are what you’re looking for, try supermarkets, discount stores, convenience stores and local corner shops. These are typically more readily available online, but check reviews before buying.
Boots have started to stock a range of masks, predominantly surgical 3-ply masks in different quantities. I’ve not seen these in store myself but they’re available online, where customers can opt for home delivery or click and collect to store.
Shops face masks at Boots.
Make Your Own
If you are content with the lower level of protection offered by a cloth mask, then making your own face covering is an option. You’ll need the material for the mask body and some fabric for the loops or elastic for the headband(s). Some sites give step-by-step tutorials on DIY masks that you can follow. The UK government has also put together a guide for wearing and making your own face covering.
With more choice, greater availability and the safety of staying home, the online world is a good option to try. However, be cautious when browsing. In any time of crisis there will sadly be many trying to take advantage either through price hikes or fake websites.
Ensure the site you’re buying from is credible; search online for reviews of the site and check out any social media pages if they have them. Ensure the website and the shopping cart have the padlock in the URL bar so you know you’re on a ‘safe’ site when entering sensitive information like your payment details.
You can also try Amazon for different types of masks and take a look at the customer reviews before buying, though availability is variable.
You may also be able to find speciality masks online, or be exempt from their use (if government guidance allows) if you are deaf or hearing impaired and rely on lip reading. There are some hand-made masks online with a clear rectangle at the front to allow for the mouth to be seen, which may be helpful for carers, loved ones or friends who are going outside with someone who needs to be able to lipread to aid communication.
eBay can be very hit and miss. You’ll generally find that prices are far higher for the likes of 3M products, where a mask that should cost around £3 each is being sold for anywhere between £8 without proof of authenticity, to £25. A P3 mask could cost you up to £40. There have been some wildly higher prices, too. In times of desperation, people can and do pay these prices. I’ve paid high prices for 3M masks that I trusted were authentic out of desperation.
While eBay have made some attempts to verify certain sellers and remove listings where prices have been heavily inflated, it doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of sellers and products to be weary of.
With branded masks like 3M, the market has become saturated with fake products. I’ve flagged several of these up to eBay, including ones I bought myself and had a refund for, with the seller claiming that they thought they were authentic. Do you research and know what to look for. In the case of 3M, there are a few things to keep in mind, the most obvious perhaps being that all masks should be individually wrapped in 3M packaging. There are sites online that provide other suggestions for what to look for. If in doubt, don’t risk it.
A fake mask is a waste of your money so the seller can profit, but it also puts you at risk as you don’t know what the mask is like internally, and it’s highly unlikely you’re going to be wearing something with the same quality, the same filters and layers to ensure the best protection.
Construction, Trade & DIY Websites
Having looked on several websites daily for the last few months, I’ve found that many have been totally out of stock of branded P2 and P3 masks.
Although the government has been sourcing PPE from abroad for NHS and care home use, many UK-based companies are continuing to ringfence P2/P3 face masks for the NHS. In these instances, individuals are unable to purchase them for their own use. Until recently, Screwfix had ringfenced their stock for NHS use but that message has recently been removed from their website. However, masks appear to be collection only but mask stock locally seems low or non-existent.
Recently In Stock
However, I have found one website that recently had stock of 3M FFP2 masks at a reasonable price. I contacted a few of those I know in the chronic illness realm that may be looking for a mask prior to sharing on social media and on here. Of course with anything like this the worry is that there will always be those who, instead of buying one or two boxes, will buy 30 boxes to re-sell on eBay at 10x the price.
Try checking out RS Components as they’ve had stock of the 3M 9322+ FFP2 face mask. RS Components supply to businesses and individuals. I registered for an account as I like having an account area where you can see past orders. At the time of writing, one box of 10 (when you add VAT and delivery) is £31.16. It’s free next delivery for orders over 30, so if you want two boxes it’s £62.90 for 20 masks. I’ve bought these myself and would highly recommend for the ease of using the website, helpful customer service, genuine 3M products, quick delivery and great value. This isn’t an affiliate link, I’m just sharing the only reliable source I’ve found in the hopes it might help others.
If you go to the website and they’re sold out, it’s worth checking back in every now and then to see whether more stock has come in or drop the company a message to enquire.
What If I Have Breathing Difficulties?
Respirator masks, particularly those with an effective, tight fit, can have an impact on breathing. Masks should have a close fit around the face and bridge of the nose, so if you have sinus or breathing issues it may make breathing more difficult, in addition to any mask can reduce easily available oxygen.
I have problems breathing through my nose along with lung scarring, inflammation and bronchiectasis. I’ve worn both valved and unvalued masks and I have to breathe solely through my mouth, but I find valved slightly more pleasant. Because supermarket trips have become far lengthier with the current precautions, those couple of hours can become very uncomfortable.
There’s also the aspect of anxiety that may affect some people, especially given how unusual it is to wear a mask when leaving the house. Try to stay as calm as possible, work on steadying your breathing, and focus on what you’re doing rather than on thinking about the mask. The more you wear one, the more you come to normalise to it and you might find it more comfortable and less anxiety inducing.
In the choice between the two, valved and unvalved, it’s a matter of why you’re buying the mask and what’s available to get. Obviously if you have even slight suspicions you may be unwell then you should be self-isolating. The valved option may be preferable if you have breathing issues or anticipate wearing the mask for an extended period of time so as to reduce the recycled carbon dioxide you’re breathing back in.
If you find it difficult, try to minimise the time needed to wear the mask. Those with severe breathing problems ironically are more likely to be in the at risk/vulnerable group and yet are sometimes advised not to wear masks because they can make breathing harder, reducing oxygen intake. If a fitted respirator causes problems, try a looser fitting surgical mask. If you have breathing issues you may be recommended not to wear a mask and be exempt from requiring to use one, so speak to your doctor if you have any concerns.
Face Mask Use : Final Word
Ensure you’re up to date with the latest government guidance for your country as to if, when and where masks are required. Beyond that, it’s a personal decision if you want to take the precaution of wearing a mask in conjunction with social distancing and hygiene to help protect yourself and those around you in the fight to stop the spread of coronavirus.
Further reading :
- WHO guidance on how & when to wear face masks/coverings.
- Government (UK) Advice FAQ on what you can/can’t due currently, including the necessity for face coverings on public transport.