Virus control: Is your face mask up to the task?

Masks are a key tool in our Covid-defence arsenal, but are the ones we’re wearing effective?

Two years into the coronavirus pandemic, face masks have become a regular feature of our daily routines as we take steps to reduce the spread of the virus.

Combined with other measures such as physical distancing, hand hygiene, and vaccination, masks protect against airborne virus transmission by providing a physical barrier to the disease.

With the Omicron variant spreading like wildfire through most states and territories, masking up is as important as ever – but how do we know if the ones we’re wearing are actually up to the job?

What should an effective Covid face mask look like?

As well as being a measure of virus control, masks have become somewhat of a fashion statement – which is fine, but function still needs to come first.

World Health Organisation guidelines recommend the public use reusable non-medical masks, disposable medical masks, or other types of non-medical masks, including homemade multi-layered masks.

“Cloth masks have to have three layers,” University of New South Wales Professor Epidemiology Mary-Louise McLaws says.

“The cloth masks have to follow the WHO cloth agreement and if they don’t, they won’t protect the wearer.”

Prof McLaws, who is a member of the WHO, says people can check if the mask they’re using is up to standard.

“People can check the cloth mask by using their fingers to see if there’s an independent inner layer, and an outer layer,” she says.

“Try to pull each layer apart and that will let them know if there are two outer layers and one inner layer.”

If you’re the crafty type and would like to whip up your own, the WHO has an online tutorial on how to make an effective face mask.

Why are three layers of mask important?

One and two layer cloth masks simply do not provide adequate protection from airborne virus particles entering your airways, explains Prof McLaws.

“If there’s just one layer, then that single layer cloth mask can get wet very quickly and once it’s wet then anything can get through very, very easily,” she says.

“Two layers of a cloth mask do not provide enough protection without a third middle layer to prevent anything that might get through the outer layer.

How to safely wear your mask

Your face mask should be well-fitted and cover your nose to be effective, says Prof McLaws.

“If you’ve got Covid and symptoms, you could be breathing out the virus through your nose,” she says.

“If you’re not infected, then you could be breathing in Omicron or Delta through your nose and it can go to your brain, lungs, (and) you’re putting yourself at great risk.”

When wearing a mask the Australian Department of Health recommends you:

  • wash or sanitise your hands before putting it on or taking it off
  • make sure it covers your nose and mouth and fits snugly under your chin
  • avoid touching the front of your mask while wearing or removing it
  • keep it in place – don’t hang it around your neck or under your nose
  • use a new single use mask each time
  • wash and dry reusable masks after use and store in a clean dry place.

Do I need a P2 or medical mask?

The P2 face mask, often worn by health care professionals, offer more protection but can be uncomfortable and tricky to achieve an effective seal.

“P2 masks are about three times the cost and are very difficult (for workers) to wear for a whole shift because they’re hard work to breathe through,” Prof McLaws says.

Prof McLaws explains Omicron particles are very light and can stay in the air indoors for longer.

She says healthcare workers use a P2 mask and a face shield partly due to the risk of tiny particles generated by procedures such as intubating a patient.

“There’s no evidence that you in the community really need to wear a P2 mask,” she says.

“If that’s what you want to wear that’s great, but you’ll likely be fine [with a three-layered cloth mask] both indoors or outdoors even though the virus is airborne.”

Written by Cheryl Critchley.