In the past few weeks, face masks have become a common sighting in public spaces as well as hospitals, with many people choosing to wear them in the belief that they will protect them from Coronavirus. They are about to become even more common, as the UK enforces the wearing of face masks on public transport from 15 June.
A face mask is designed to protect those around you more than it will ever protect you. It limits the likelihood of you coughing or sneezing germs over other people, but it does little to stop them coughing and sneezing over you. Even the respirator masks you'll find online aren't able to filter out all particles, and they won't stop you picking up germs on your hands and then touching your face.
Do I need to wear a face mask?
If you are in the UK and planning to use public transport on or after 15 June then the answer is simple: yes. However, perhaps the real question you are pondering is should you wear a face mask?
Some experts warn that face masks are dangerous because they give the wearer a false sense of security, and may lead to them taking risks that they would normally avoid. However, they also acknowledge that they can be helpful in reducing the spread of infection when worn en masse.
The CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) recommends that cloth face coverings are used in community settings as an extra precaution that sits alongside rather than in place of social distancing, frequent hand cleaning and avoiding touching your face.
The WHO (World Health Organisation) also provides advice on the use of face masks, suggesting that they need only be worn if you are caring for someone who has contracted the virus, or if you have symptoms yourself.
What type of face mask should I wear?
There are three types of face masks:
- Home-made cloth masks
- Loose-fitting surgical masks
- FFP2/N95/KN95 respirator masks
Cloth masks are simply garments worn around your face that cover your nose and mouth and limit the likelihood that respiratory droplets can spread from person to person. You can make your own using an old T-shirt or other item of clothing, or you can buy some funky material or more stylish designs online, but you should ensure that they are tight-fitting and secure. Cloth masks can be washed after each use, but remember to wash your hands before and after fitting or removing them from your face.
Loose-fitting surgical masks may offer slightly better protection from infection than a cloth mask, with their three layers of protection, but those with fine mesh designs will perform better. These masks are disposable and should be thrown away after use.
One tech company is offering free face masks in the UK.
Respirator masks are reusable, but require proper care and handling. They come with FFP1, FFP2 and FFP3 ratings in Europe, with FFP3 offering the highest level of protection. It is these that are used by the NHS. However, FFP2 masks are sufficient to meet WHO guidelines, and most of those you'll find online have this rating. Elsewhere FFP2 is also commonly referred to as N95 (US) or KN95 (China).
Respirators are not recommended outside healthcare settings, since they can be uncomfortable and stuffy to wear, and require proper fitting in order to be effective. There is also a severe shortage of PPE available to medical workers, and any available masks should really go to those on the front line who need them most. Regardless, it's possible to buy both surgical masks and FFP2 respirators on the internet.
Where can I buy a face mask online?
There are stockists online for cloth masks, surgical masks and FFP2 respirators, but Google is doing a pretty good job of hiding them from search results right now.
Once you have found some, which will require knowing where to look, you really need to watch out for delivery times - that is to say we hope that you will be in less need of a surgical mask a month from now than you are today.
US sites Sock Fancy and LA Apparel are doing huge business right now as a distributor of some more stylish cloth face masks, and both ship to the UK. If you're in the UK you might also want to check out JustHype for some trendy designs starting at £9.99, and do note that for several options listed the company is offering to pass on all profits to our NHS.
VistaPrint is another UK retailer that has emerged as a stockist of some funky looking cloth masks, and since it jumped on the bandwagon all manner of retailers have followed suit - which means you can not only find stock, but some seriously stylish options.
We're also seeing a rise in people buying funky fabric (such as from John Lewis) and sewing machines, and making not only their own masks but also volunteering to help make scrubs and scrubs wash bags for health workers.
Where to buy a surgical mask online
Because surgical masks are disposable, it makes little sense to buy just one. Therefore, these are usually sold in bulk.
GearBest is offering some very good prices on bulk-buy purchases of surgical masks, shipped free from within the UK and delivered to you within 2-4 business days. You'll pay £21.95 for 50, £40.65 for 100, £77.24 for 200, £195.14 for 500, and £390.28 for 1,000.
Where to buy a FFP2/N95/KN95 respirator mask online
Since you only need the one respirator mask (unless you're buying for others), the quickest and easiest route might be to order from UK Meds, which sells single FFP2 masks from £3.99.
GearBest may once again be the answer here. It has three types of respirator mask that ship free from within the UK in between 3-5 business days.
The SH KN95 mask comes in packs of five, 10 or 20, priced at £16.19, £32.52 and £65.04 respectively.
There's also the LH 9019 mask, which comes in a pack of 10 for £40.65.
For larger orders consider this alternative FFP2 mask, which is available in packs of 20 (£63.42), 60 (£185.38), 100 (£300.84) and 200 (£601.68).