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Guide: How face masks work

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Updated March 4, 2020

Face masks have been selling out in many parts of the world, which has been creating some confusion as to when and how they should be used. Learn a bit about how face masks work and differentiates various types of face-masks from one another.

Why everyone is scrambling for face-masks right now

Surgical facial masks, breathing masks, often colloquially referred to as just "face masks" are something that's been on everyone's mind since the start of this year following the outbreak of the coronavirus. The phenomenon that is the face-mask feels somewhat foreign in Europe, but it has been very much a norm in other parts of the world, especially in countries within the Asian continent. Even though some uses these masks to avoid the worst of air pollution in large cities, many mistakenly believe that face masks are used to protect themselves from being infected with various illnesses.

In actuality, they're designed with the intent of protecting others around you from catching your own cold if you come in close proximity to them. Unsurprisingly, when there is a notable outbreak of major diseases we see increased use of surgical face masks. This is something we all observed during outbreaks of avian and swine-flu and now are re-experiencing with the newest outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Do face masks protect you from contracting the coronavirus?

The short answer is, no. In order to grasp why this is the case, you have to have an understanding of how different viruses spread. An airborne virus can be transferred via breathing, but the virus we're discussing right now is not airborne. The COVID-19 virus is spread through cough droplets, much like other similar viruses. This means that being in close contact with someone who is sick or has contracted the COVID-19 virus can put you at risk of being affected via exposure to coughing, sneezing or through physical contact.

It's generally recommended that you should avoid touching your face frequently if you are in the company of someone who is sick or may be affected by the COVID-19 virus. Face masks give one a false sense of security, which may lead you to neglect other forms of protection. For example, not being thorough with your hand-washing regime or frequently poking your eyes, mouth and nose.

How face masks work

For those that are able to get their hands on face or breathing masks, it might be good to get a better understanding of how they work and can be used to great effect. For example, if a large fire breaks out in the nearby vicinity, fumes from the fire can be harmful and irritate your lungs, so having a face mask can be helpful to shield you from the worst of the effects. This could also be said if you're operating mechanical saws or sanding machines whilst renovating to avoid breathing micro-particles of dust.

The same rules and principles applied to face masks are the same for situations where one wishes to avoid breathing particles and gases. Everything is centered around the same standard, which classes different types of face masks and the degree to which they block out particles. In the EU, this is referred to as FFP, of which there are 3 classification levels:

  • FFP1 blocks out 80% of micro-particles
  • FFP2 blocks out 95% of micro-particles
  • FFP3 blocks out 99% of micro-particles

To make a long story short, this basically entails how well the masks protect one from micro-particles that can be inhaled. The denser the protection is, the fewer particles can pass through the material. Standard surgical face masks are completely outside of this class system.

How long does a breathing mask last?

Air you breathe in and out normally eventually reduces the effectiveness of a face mask after a while, after which you should replace it.

  • Single-use masks are thrown away immediately after initial use and replaced with a new mask. It usually is stated on their packaging how long they are intended to last.
  • Multi-use masks with replaceable filters also have a fairly short lifespan. Depending on the model, you may switch out the filter with a new one once it's reached the end of its usefulness or clean the filter if it has been designed for it.

Regardless of the type of face mask you have, it's always important to read the labels and specifications of the respective product. Breathing masks with replaceable filters can vary significantly regarding how long they can be used and the length of time before filters need to be replaced. More simple breathing masks with replaceable filters can usually last for around 100hrs, whilst more expensive face masks may require the filter to be changed on a weekly basis.

The differences are also significant from model to model, so it is up to you to decide what type of use works most effectively for you and your needs.

The most sought-after face masks right now

Even if face masks are sold out everywhere, both in stores and amongst manufacturers, there's sure to be a frenetic production of more on the way. One could assume that the majority of these are sold directly to healthcare facilities. In the event that more face masks and breathing masks will be produced for more general consumer purchases, here are 5 products that have been some of the most sought after the past few weeks:

Dust Proof Mouth Face Mask 50-pack

Dust Proof Mouth Face Mask

50 face masks with elastic bands

Lowest price at

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3M 8835 Fine Dust Mask with Valve FFP3 5-pack

3M 8835 Fine Dust Mask With Valve

A very breathable face mask with FFP3 class protection.

Lowest price at

Compare all prices
3M Disposable Respirator FFP3 Valved 8833 10-pack

3M Disposable Respirator

Effective and lightweight disposable face masks with FFP3 class protection.

Compare all prices

More tips and advice on how to protect yourself from illness

In order to make it easier for you to find great content on the theme of protection from illnesses, we've created a collection page for all of the related stories and content we've made on this topic. The page is updated on an on-going basis and here we'll gather guides and tips we hope will be of use and helpful to you in these flu-ridden times.

Read more guides and tips

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