Coronavirus outbreak: What you need to know about face masks

They have become synonymous with efforts to fight against the spread of coronavirus. But you are not alone if you are still confused about the different types.

When it comes to face masks, there seem to be three types that seem most common — the P2 (also known as N95), surgical masks and regular cloth masks.

You might also have heard the KN95 mentioned. So how do they differ? And what is the latest guidance on the need to wear them amid the coronavirus outbreak?

Can a face mask protect against COVID-19 and other viruses?

Infections such as COVID-19 are spread when someone who has the virus speaks, breathes, coughs or sneezes and releases infected droplets that stay in the air or land on surfaces including door handles, buttons and handrails.

You risk infection when you breathe in that air, or touch those surfaces and then your face or mouth.

Current World Health Organisation advice is you only need to wear a face mask if you are ill with COVID-19 symptoms (especially coughing) or if you are treating someone who is sick, but the Australian Medical Association says those who want to don a mask should do so.

“As time has gone on we’ve seen that just covering your mouth in public is actually helpful,” AMA South Australian president Chris Moy says.

“As long as you’re not relying purely on the mask and wearing it is part of a broader practice of social distancing and maintaining good hygiene including washing your hands,” Dr Moy says.

His comments echo new analysis published in The Lancet medical journal that found masks and social distancing can help control the coronavirus, but hand washing and other measures are still needed.

Epidemiologist Raina MacIntyre, who wrote an accompanying editorial on the comprehensive study, says while face masks are not yet widely recommended in Australia that may change, particularly as the feasibility of large public gatherings are considered.

“When you’re out and about, you can’t tell who is infected and who isn’t. You may be infected and not know it,” Prof MacIntyre says.

“Especially with the growing evidence of pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic transmission, universal face mask use is an important way to reduce the spread of infection – by both protecting well people and preventing infected people from transmitting infection outward.”

Which face masks offer the best protection?

Cloth masks

Do-it-yourself cloth masks are less effective, studies say, because many have gaps near the nose, cheeks and jaw where tiny droplets can be inhaled, and the fabric used is often porous.

While they have the advantage of being reusable, they need to be washed after every use.

Multi-layer masks have been found to be more protective than single-layer masks, Prof MacIntyre says, adding: “A well-designed cloth mask should have water-resistant fabric, multiple layers and a good facial fit.”

Surgical masks

Also called a medical mask, a surgical mask is a loose-fitting, disposable flat or pleated mask that is attached to your head using straps.

It creates a physical barrier between the mouth and nose of the wearer and prevents the transmission of airborne organisms.

The Australian Government says they can benefit sick people to stop them coughing on others and healthcare workers who have frequent, close contact with people who are ill.

“Approved surgical masks are designed and regulated on water resistance, but the filtration of airborne particles is variable and not regulated,” Prof MacIntyre says.

P2/N95 masks

The P2-rated face mask is the Australian Standards version of the US N95.

“N95 and P2 are respirators designed to US standards to filter out 95 per cent of airborne particles and to fit around the face,” Prof MacIntyre explains.

To be effective, the P2/N95 masks must be fitted according to the manufacturer’s instructions and form a tight seal around the face.

“Generally, you need this because air will flow down the path of least resistance — to force air through the filter, you need a good fit around the face,” she says.

Researchers in The Lancet study concluded that respirator-type devices provide a higher level of protection than standard surgical masks for medical professionals in a healthcare setting.


“A KN95 face mask is also a respirator, designed to meet Chinese standards – often with ear loops, which may not give as good a fit as the bands on N95s, but still filters 95 per cent of airborne particles,” Prof MacIntyre says.

KN95 masks are made of four materials layered together: non-woven fabric, electrostatic melt-blown cloth, cotton and polypropylene cloth.

Other preventative measures against coronavirus

“The most important message from this (Lancet) study is that no intervention on its own is 100 per cent effective — but with a combination of distancing, mask use and other interventions, we can hold COVID-19 at bay until an effective vaccine is developed,” Prof MacIntyre says.

Where to get essential coronavirus information

If you are experiencing symptoms of coronavirus, call the 24/7 hotline on 1800 675 398. You can also use the Healthdirect symptom checker.

Instant Consult offers on-the-spot online GP consultations and can issue medical certificates, prescriptions, radiology and pathology requests and specialist referrals.

Information, news and government guidance on COVID-19 changes regularly. For the latest official health and government advice, visit:

Written by Liz McGrath.