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Face coverings, explained

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, 7 min read

Face coverings, explained

Many governments around the world are advising the public to wear face coverings in order to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. But before you head over to Etsy or sacrifice that t-shirt, here’s what you need to know about cloth masks.

What is a face covering and how does it work?

Face coverings generally refer to a piece of material used to cover the nose and mouth, often in the form of a homemade cloth mask.

The aim is to form a barrier to virus-filled droplets that are coughed, sneezed or simply breathed out when talking.

Face coverings are an additional measure in the fight against COVID-19. When wearing one, it is still just as important as always to wash your hands regularly, avoid touching your face, practice social distancing and stay at home if you have symptoms.

Why use a face covering?

Using a homemade mask helps to protect others in your community. And critically - it ensures supplies of medical masks continue reaching those that need them most.

Surgical face masks and masks used as part of personal protective equipment (PPE) should be reserved for use by healthcare professionals. Such masks need specialist fitting. They also tend to be single-use, non-recyclable and expensive.

Although cloth masks may not stop the individual wearing them from becoming infected, there is a growing body of evidence that they could help prevent spread by people with COVID-19 who don’t have symptoms.1

Is it as effective as a medical mask?

The truth is - it is difficult to make a cloth mask that’s as good as the PPE masks worn by healthcare professionals. And homemade masks haven’t been scientifically approved for personal protective use.

It is also important to remember that the purpose of wearing a face covering is different from why healthcare professionals wear N95 respirators or FFP masks. Face coverings are recommended predominantly to protect those around you.

We know from studies that up to 80% of people with COVID-19 don’t have symptoms2 and 40%-80% of infections are transmitted by people without symptoms1. So, the idea is that if we all wore face coverings when in small shops, on public transport or in other enclosed spaces - we’d be less likely to spread the virus unknowingly.

What kind of face covering should I use?

There are no established standards for homemade masks, but there are many available online and lots of tutorials out there if you want to make your own.

The options are varied (and often quite entertaining!) From the government’s no-sew t-shirt option, to the trainer sock mask and various styles with elastic bands, coffee filters and even panty liners.

3-point face covering checklist

If you’re embarking on the journey to buy or make a cloth mask, first consider the following 3 points:

  1. Material choice

To be as effective as possible, a cloth mask should be made using a fabric that blocks a good number of droplets from passing through it.

The material you choose needs to remain breathable and be comfortable to wear for prolonged periods of time. It also should be easy to wash and retain its shape.

Fabrics such as cotton t-shirts, pillowcases and tea towels, have been found to block some droplets, without significantly affecting breathability3.

This is probably why T-shirts appear to be a particularly good choice and are recommended in tutorials by the USA’s CDC and the British Government too. T-shirt fabric also stretches slightly, and this could lead to an improved fit.

2. The fit

A good cloth mask should fit well around the nose and mouth, so that droplets and virus particles don’t get out around the sides.

The fit relies on the mask as well as the wearer. Facial hair in particular can make achieving a good fit very difficult. For a good fit, anyone sporting a beard might need to consider a style change. The CDC wrote a fun blog back in 2017 for Movember and the facial hair styles that are more suited to people wearing respirators at work.4

For loose-fitting cloth masks, a recent study, that is yet to be published, found that putting a nylon stocking layer over the top can make a mask more effective and fit better.5

3. Mask etiquette

Regardless of the mask you choose, it loses its effectiveness and potentially increases the risk of infection if not used properly.

When using any face mask or covering it is important to follow these steps based on the World Health Organization’s tips on how to use a face mask safely.

  1. Wash your hands well with soap and water
  2. Take a clean mask and put it on securely so that it doesn’t move around
  3. Make sure it covers your nose, mouth and tucks under your chin
  4. Check around the sides of your mask that there is as little gapping as possible
  5. If you need to readjust your mask at any point, wash your hands straight after or use an alcohol-based hand gel
  6. If the mask gets damp or if you are done using it, take it off without touching the front part
  7. Put reusable masks straight into your washing machine or a bowl of water with detergent in it. If you’re out and about, put it in a plastic bag and then wash the mask soon as you’re home. Throw disposable face masks straight into the bin
  8. Always wash your hands well after removing your mask

Common face covering questions

Here are some commonly asked questions and answers about face coverings:

  • How can I stop my glasses from misting?

To avoid your glasses fogging up every time you breathe out, make sure the upper part of your mask comes up as high as possible, under your eyes, and rest your glasses on top.

Research carried out to find a solution for spectacle-wearing surgeons found that dipping your glasses in soapy water and leaving them to dry with a soapy film on the lenses reduces the fogginess.6

  • What happens if I need to take my face covering off whilst I’m away from home?

If you remember to always carry a spare face covering, a plastic bag and some alcohol gel with you - then you can safely and easily put on another one.

Put your used mask in the plastic bag. Wash your hands with alcohol gel. Then put your spare mask on.

  • It is hard to exercise or walk the dog when wearing a face covering

The risk of spreading COVID-19 is higher when indoors and in an enclosed space, than when outdoors. If you’re exercising alone, with members of your household or keeping 2 metres between yourself and others, you shouldn’t need to wear a face covering. But please respect local government guidance, as it may vary.

  • How do I wash my face covering?

Face coverings can be safely washed with your normal laundry and powder, in a washing machine or by hand.

  • What can I do if my ears get uncomfortable?

Face coverings that involve looping or tying the mask around your ears can be uncomfortable. You can get around this by using an ear-saver (made by attaching 2 buttons to a piece of fabric or headband) or using a clip or hook to which you attach the ear loops behind your head.

  • Are there people who shouldn’t wear a face covering?

Most people can safely wear a face covering; however, it is important to note that they shouldn’t be put on children under the age of 3. Placing something over the nose and mouth of a young child increases the risk of suffocation as they may not be able to take it off themselves if needed or if they’re struggling to breathe. Also, for people who have difficulty breathing, a face covering could be unsuitable and might cause more harm than good.

We hope you found this blog useful and remember that you’re wearing a face covering in order to help look after everyone else in your community. So, make sure to use your face covering as effectively and safely as possible, whilst continuing to carry out the usual recommended measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

For more information and the latest updates on COVID-19, read our coronavirus guide and follow government guidelines.


  1. Initiative, R., 2020. Face Masks For The General Public. [online] Royal Society DELVE Initiative. Available at: <> [Accessed 13 May 2020].
  2. Day, M., 2020. Covid-19: four fifths of cases are asymptomatic, China figures indicate. BMJ, p.m1375.
  3. Davies, A., Thompson, K., Giri, K., Kafatos, G., Walker, J. and Bennett, A., 2013. Testing the Efficacy of Homemade Masks: Would They Protect in an Influenza Pandemic?. Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness, 7(4), pp.413-418.
  4. 2020. To Beard Or Not To Beard? That’s A Good Question! | | Blogs | CDC. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 13 May 2020].
  5. Amy Mueller and Loretta Fernandez, 2020. Assessment Of Fabric Masks As Alternatives To Standard Surgical Masks In Terms Of Particle Filtration Efficiency. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 13 May 2020].
  6. Malik, S. and Malik, S., 2011. A simple method to prevent spectacle lenses misting up on wearing a face mask. The Annals of The Royal College of Surgeons of England, 93(2), pp.168-168.

The information provided is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of a doctor with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never delay seeking or disregard professional medical advice because of something you have read here.

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