Will Wearing Face Masks Now Become The New Normal For Us All?

With the government insisting people in England wear face coverings in shops, we look into the science behind masks, where to get them and how to make your own.

best cloth face masks

by Georgia Aspinall |
Updated on

Wearing a face covering in shops will be compulsory in England from the 24th July. The move was announced this week by health secretary Matt Hancock, with fines of up to £100 for those who fail to comply.

While official guidance from the World Health Organisation(WHO) still states that medical masks should be reserved for health workers, earlier this year Dr. David Nabarro - who is the WHO's coronavirus special envoy - said wearing face masks in public will become the new normal as we learn to live with Covid-19.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in April that people will likely start wearing facial protection more, even if just for their own reassurance. He insisted that medical masks should be reserved for health workers first - and that the best defence for the public is to isolate yourself and people with whom you've been in contact if you have symptoms - he said wearing facial protection more commonly will be one of the bigger lessons we learn from this pandemic.

'It’s a revolution like when it was discovered that dirty water bore cholera in 1850, or like 25 years ago when we all learned about HIV/Aids and its relationship with sex,' Dr. Nabarro said. 'We changed and we adapted, we learned how to live with these new realities.'

SHOP: Stylish Face Masks Giving Back To Charity

What is the difference between a medical and non-medical mask?

When the Covid-19 panic began, demand for medical masks - such as N95 respirator masks and surgical masks - went through the roof resulting in a global shortage. Since, experts have warned that medical masks must be reserved for health workers. As such, non-medical masks - such as cloth or silk masks - have surged in popularity.

Celebrities and fashion brands have been creating readymade non-medical masks that you can wear immediately, plus those you can make yourself at home. In fact, non-medical masks are now becoming something of a fashion statement.

It started with brands like Alice and Olivia, Helmstedt and the aforementioned Collina Strada, all of whom are selling the types of colourful, patterned and embellished non-medical masks listed above. And while it's important to note that they're not medically-approved, they are easing anxiety for many - especially after the US government defied WHO guidelines and advised all citizens to don face masks, lest they face fines.

But if they're not medically approved, is there any point in wearing one? We spoke to an expert to find out.

Are homemade or non-medical face masks useful to prevent coronavirus?

'They aren't scientifically proven to offer any protection against the virus,' says Dr Anna Nott, an NHS GP. 'And the advice would be to self isolate, and adopt the social distancing measures that the government promotes.

'I think they're more to help people's anxiety than preventing them getting the virus,' she explains. 'It gives them some degree of control over going out. If they adopt the social distancing, and they stay in - practising social isolation measures - then wearing a [homemade] mask isn't going to cause them any problems.'

Dr Nott explains that if wearing a mask stops you from touching your face with your hands and you're putting it on and removing it correctly - washing your hands before and after touching the mask - then it can provide some help though, since the virus is spread by touching your face. However, as the UK guidelines maintained, this is only if masks are put on, removed and worn correctly.

'Don’t touch the inside of the mask and keep the mask on rather than taking it off and on when you're out or keeping it on your chin,' Dr Nott adds. 'The more you touch the mask the more likely it is that you are getting the virus that's on your fingers onto the mask which can then travel to the mouth.'

'All of these things - including putting the mask on and taking it off incorrectly - could then be indirectly putting the virus close to their mouth because the virus will be on the mask,' Dr Nott adds. 'But overall I don't believe there's any science behind using them.'

What should I consider when making a home face mask?

'The [medical] masks you can buy are made with particular materials that have been tested to show that they do reduce the inhalation of certain particles' says Dr Nott. 'The surgical masks we use at the hospital have been shown to reduce the spread of the virus but they're made with a different material that's finer than the material used to make masks at home.

'I believe that people are using the same material to make masks that they make cushions and clothes from - so cotton or silk - and so the spaces between the fibres are not small enough to stop the virus from spreading in and out.'

Dr Nott also says that breathing in masks made from cotton and silk - as opposed to medical masks - can make the material damp quickly.

'The material becomes more permeable to the virus and so more likely to spread through it,' she explains. 'So in terms of protection against the virus it's very little if any. But if it helps someone's anxiety and it gives them some degree of feeling that they are helping themselves not get it then that's beneficial.

'The main most important thing is that they continue to stay two meters away from someone and adopt social distancing and isolation measures,' Dr. Nott concludes.

[Read the WHO full guidance on face masks here.](https://www.who.int/publications-detail/advice-on-the-use-of-masks-in-the-community-during-home-care-and-in-healthcare-settings-in-the-context-of-the-novel-coronavirus-){href='https://www.who.int/publications-detail/advice-on-the-use-of-masks-in-the-community-during-home-care-and-in-healthcare-settings-in-the-context-of-the-novel-coronavirus-(2019-ncov)' target='_blank' rel='noopener noreferrer'}

What is the current UK advice on wearing face masks?

On the British government website, the following is stated:

'You must wear a face covering at all times on public transport or when attending a hospital as a visitor or outpatient. Hospitals will be able to provide a face covering in emergencies. If you can, you should also wear a face covering in other enclosed public spaces where social distancing isn’t possible and where you will come into contact with people you do not normally meet. This is most relevant for short periods indoors in crowded areas. You should be prepared to remove your face covering if asked to do so by police officers and staff for the purposes of identification.

'Evidence suggests that wearing a face covering does not protect you. However, if you are infected but have not yet developed symptoms, it may provide some protection for others you come into close contact with.

'Face coverings do not replace social distancing. If you have symptoms of COVID-19 (cough, and/or high temperature, and/or loss of, or change in, your normal sense of smell or taste - anosmia), you and your household must isolate at home: wearing a face covering does not change this. You should arrange to have a test to see if you have COVID-19.

Alongside this, the government have published instructions on how to make your own face coverings from an old T-shirt - read more here.

'A face covering is not the same as the surgical masks or respirators used by healthcare and other workers as part of personal protective equipment. These should continue to be reserved for those who need them to protect against risks in their workplace, such as health and care workers, and those in industrial settings, like those exposed to dust hazards.

'Face coverings should not be used by children under the age of 3 or those who may find it difficult to manage them correctly. It is important to use face coverings properly and wash your hands before putting them on and taking them off.

'It is important to use face coverings properly and wash your hands before putting them on and taking them off.'

How do I wear a mask correctly?

'For any type of mask, appropriate use and disposal are essential to ensure that they are effective and to avoid any increase in transmission,' reads WHO guidance. 'The following information on the correct use of masks is derived from practices in health care settings.

'Place the mask carefully, ensuring it covers the mouth and nose, and tie it securely to minimize any gaps between the face and the mask.

'Avoid touching the mask while wearing it.

'Remove the mask using the appropriate technique: do not touch the front of the mask but untie it from behind.

'After removal or whenever a used mask is inadvertently touched, clean hands using an alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.

'Replace masks as soon as they become damp with a new clean, dry mask.

'Do not re-use single-use masks. Discard single-use masks after each use and dispose of them immediately upon removal.

Read more:

What It's Like To Navigate Coronavirus When You Suffer From Health Anxiety

Coronavirus: What Should I Do If I Had A Wedding Planned This Summer?

Coronavirus: How To Survive Being Cooped Up As A Couple

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