COVID-19: Face masks

When, why and how to wear a face mask

Key points about COVID-19 and face masks

  • Wearing a face mask can reduce the risk of infected people spreading COVID-19 and any other infectious respiratory diseases like influenza.
  • A mask that is tightly fitted to the face such as a P2 or N95 mask is better than a blue surgical mask or a fabric mask.
  • Masks are recommended when visiting certain healthcare facilities like hospitals, GPs, pharmacies and aged care residential facilities. 
  • Some places like workplaces or marae may ask people to wear a mask.
  • Masks are recommended in confined places such as public transport or when visiting vulnerable people.


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(WHO, Switzerland, 2020)

Masks and respirators can provide different levels of protection depending on the type of mask and how they are used. It was originally thought that any mask would do, and certainly any mask is better than no mask, but you should have a mask that fits your face snugly. A scarf, bandana or t-shirt across the face no longer counts as a mask in Aotearoa New Zealand. 

Image source: Canva. Top left (surgical mask), Bottom (N95 mask), Top right (dust mask)

Disposable masks 

  • These include the widely available ‘blue’ surgical masks P2, N95, KN95 type 2R or level 2 or above.
  • N95 is a US standard, KN95 is a Chinese standard, and P2 is a New Zealand/Australian respiratory standard.
  • Dust masks that have exhalation valves are not recommended as they have a one-way valve, which allows particles to escape if an infected person coughs or sneezes.
  • Keep some with you all the time in case you need to use them.
  • Do not share masks – you need a few so each member of your whānau can have their own mask.
  • You can buy them in supermarkets and pharmacies and some are available free when you order free RATs online.(external link)
  • See below for advice on which disposable masks can be washed. 

Read more about the different types of disposable face masks.(external link)

Fabric masks are not as effective against the COVID-19 virus

They are not as effective as surgical masks or medical-grade masks at keeping you protected. It is recommended that if you wear a fabric mask it should fit well and have a filter layer inserted between the two fabric layers. Or you could wear one over the top of a blue surgical mask.

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(World Health Organization, 2020)

Although the use of face masks may appear straight forward there are few things to consider to ensure you are using them correctly. Correct and consistent mask use is important in reducing the risk of getting and spreading COVID-19.  

  • Never share masks: Never share face masks with other people.   
  • Ensure your mask fits you well: Your mask should completely cover your nose and mouth, fit snugly against the sides of your face and not have any gaps. Poorly fitting masks may have gaps around the sides of the face or nose. Gaps may allow respiratory droplets containing the virus to leak in and out around the mask.
  • Wear it the right way up: If your mask has a nose wire, this goes across the bridge of your nose and not on your chin. If wearing a medical mask, the pleats face downwards
  • Wear it the right side out: The white side of your medical mask goes against your face and the coloured part faces outwards.
  • If you wear a niqab – or veil for religious reasons, you can wear a mask by sliding it onto your ears and wearing it underneath your veil.
  • Fabric masks should have filter pockets: It is best to add a filter to a fabric mask. Some fabric masks that you buy already include this. If you are sewing your own fabric masks at home, you can add a filter pocket to allow for a filter to be added in. The filter layer provides added protection against COVID-19.

Washing your mask

Both fabric masks and disposable masks – not P2/KN95/N95 masks – can be washed.

  • Disposable masks can be washed up to 10 times and still be effective at protecting you against COVID-19. When washing disposable masks, it's best to soak them in warm, hot or boiling water. This is better than washing them in a machine or with soap or detergent which makes them breakdown and become less effective more quickly.
  • N95 mask or N95 masks should not be washed as they have a special static charge that traps viruses. Virus particles trapped in the respirator will die off over the course of hours to days, so experts recommend letting an N95 or KN95 mask hang out in a cool, dry place for a day or two between outings and rotating a number of masks.

Good hygiene when putting on a face mask  

  • Wash your hands thoroughly before you put your face mask on, before you take it off and after you’ve removed it.
  • Check your mask is clean and dry – don’t ever use a damp mask. Don’t use it if it’s damaged, dirty or soiled.
  • Hold your mask by the straps when handling it. When you put it on and take it off, do so by holding onto the straps only. Avoid touching the mask itself as this could contaminate it.
  • Once you have your mask on, avoid touching it or fiddling with it as you could spread germs from your hands onto the mask.

The latest information suggests that home made masks are not nearly as effective at keeping out the virus particles as surgical quality paper masks or medical-grade masks. However, if you are using or making a fabric mask, add a pocket for a filter to make it more effective. See the picture below. You can cut up a surgical mask to add as a filter layer. If you are choosing to use a fabric mask because you don't like the look of the surgical/medical grade ones you could always wear it over the top. 

Image credit: Canva

One way to stop your glasses fogging up because of your face mask is to pull your mask up closer to where your glasses sit, then wear your glasses on top of your mask material. Your breath should miss your glasses when you do this.

If this doesn't work, take some time to adjust and tighten the face mask ties so that it sits closer to your face, then try again. You can also knot your mask ties to your glasses to help keep it in place. A well-fitted face mask should minimise fog.

As well as making sure your mask fits snugly to reduce fogging, there’s another trick you can try. Wash your glasses with soapy water and shake off the excess water. Then, let them air dry or gently dry the lenses with a soft tissue. This should help prevent your glasses fogging up. If you have contact lenses, they are a good alternative as they don’t fog up.

Be aware that wearing a mask may affect how well you can see as they can block your peripheral vision, especially if you wear glasses. To avoid falls, be careful when you are going up and down stairs, and walk more slowly than usual. If you are inside, make sure there aren't things lying around that you could trip over. Don't look down, research shows you are more likely to make stepping errors if you look at your feet instead of looking ahead. It is thought that looking down may impair stability by disrupting the finely tuned system through which vision is used to maintain walking safety.

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