Alongside other preventive measures, wearing a face mask may help slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Different types of mask are available for people to wear during the current pandemic.

In this article, we discuss face mask research and different types of face mask. We also answer other frequently asked questions.

Stay informed with live updates on the current COVID-19 outbreak and visit our coronavirus hub for more advice on prevention and treatment.

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a woman on a bus wearing a surgical mask which is one of the types of facemasks a person can wear during a pandemicShare on Pinterest
Face masks may help prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2.

Currently, research suggests that the novel coronavirus spreads primarily via respiratory droplets.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), people can transmit the virus to others while showing no signs or symptoms of COVID-19. A mathematical model from a 2020 study supports this, suggesting that 40–80% of transmission stems from those showing no symptoms.

Although the science around the effectiveness of face masks is not definitive, these items likely offer some protection from the coronavirus. The authors of one study concluded that surgical face masks could prevent the transmission of the coronavirus from symptomatic individuals. Other researchers also encourage the use of face masks in public.

It is possible, therefore, that widespread use of face masks by the public might help slow the spread of the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that people use a simple cloth face covering when they go out.

In addition to face masks, it is important to continue following other preventive measures, such as regular hand washing and physical distancing.

The WHO advise that people looking after someone who has COVID-19 and those who have symptoms such as coughing and sneezing should wear a face mask.

The CDC suggest wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where it may be difficult to adhere to physical distancing measures.

These settings may include:

  • hospitals and other healthcare settings
  • workplaces
  • grocery stores
  • pharmacies

Like the CDC, the WHO recommend that the general public wear nonmedical masks when physical distancing is not possible. This includes on public transport, in shops, and in some working conditions, such as those of social workers and cashiers.

They also recommend that people aged 60 and over and people with existing medical conditions wear medical masks when physical distancing is not possible.

Medical masks are a critical source for healthcare workers and others who need them the most. When medical masks are in short supply, the WHO say that they should be reserved for healthcare workers and at-risk individuals.

People are currently using three main types of face mask:

  • surgical mask
  • respirators, such as N95, FFP2, or the equivalent
  • cloth face coverings

Surgical mask

A surgical face mask is a form of personal protective equipment (PPE) that generally fits loosely over the nose and mouth. These masks shield against large cough or sneeze droplets, splashes, or sprays, but they cannot protect against smaller droplets.

People should refrain from sharing these masks, which can come with or without a face shield. Researchers acknowledge that the single use of a medical mask is not always feasible but note that it is preferable because long-term use and reuse could lead to self-contamination.


Seal-tested respirator masks include the N95 and other FFP2/3 forms.

These masks have tangled fibers to filter pathogens in the air, and they fit very close to the face. The edges form a seal around the mouth and nose.

The general public should not use these masks as they are in critical supply. Only healthcare workers should use them.

Cloth face coverings

The CDC have created a video providing guidance on how to make a cloth face covering.

People can make these masks using a variety of fabrics and items of clothing, including scarves, bandanas, T-shirts, and pillowcases. A tightly woven cotton fabric is most suitable.

Research on various fibers, including cotton, silk, chiffon, flannel, and various synthetics, showed that a combination of different fabrics was most effective.

Several online guides and videos are available to provide instructions to people wishing to make a DIY face covering.

Some methods involve sewing, but others do not. Most methods require similar materials, such as scissors, measuring tape, and cloth.

Click here to learn how to make homemade cloth face coverings.

Although applying a face mask sounds simple, some common mistakes are easy to make while wearing one. The CDC list some general considerations for cloth face coverings, advising people to:

  • ensure that the face covering does not cause difficulty breathing
  • check that the face mask covers both the nose and mouth
  • make sure that a person can tighten or secure the covering to prevent it from slipping
  • fit the covering snugly, so there are no gaps
  • wash the face covering after each use

The WHO also suggest not touching the mask while using it. To remove the mask, a person should do so from behind to avoid touching the front of it.

Below, we answer some commonly asked questions about face masks.

Where can I buy a face mask?

Medical grade face masks are generally for those working on the healthcare frontline. Nonmedical, reusable fabric face masks are available to the general public. People can also make cloth face coverings at home.

Will a face covering stop me from getting the new coronavirus?

No, it will not. The face mask is a preventive measure, and its primary use is to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. It is also important to wash the hands regularly and continue to follow physical distancing guidelines.

Is there anyone who should not wear a face mask?

The CDC advise that children under the age of 2 years should not wear a cloth face covering. They also suggest that people who have trouble breathing or are unable to remove a mask without assistance should not wear one either.

Should I wash my cloth face coverings?

Yes. Washing after every use is very important.

To wash cloth face coverings, the CDC recommend either a washing machine with regular detergent or washing by hand carefully with a bleach solution.

Why can I not wear a medical face mask or N95 respirator?

Medical masks are a critical source for healthcare workers and others who need them the most. When medical masks are in short supply, the WHO say that they should be reserved for healthcare workers and at-risk individuals.

The consensus in the medical community is that face masks may help prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2.

The effectiveness of different face masks can vary. If a person is likely to be in proximity to others for an extended period, a face mask is highly recommended.

In addition to face masks, people should diligently follow other key recommendations, such as washing the hands regularly and keeping a physical distance where possible.

For live updates on the latest developments regarding the novel coronavirus and COVID-19, click here.