Everything You Need To Know About Face Masks

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, more and more people have taken to wearing masks in public to slow the spread of COVID-19. As of August 2nd, 2020, face masks have become mandatory in Victoria, with every citizen of the state having to wear a mask when they leave the home. This is a vital step to combatting the further spread of the coronavirus in the state. 

There are, of course, some exemptions from having to wear a mask. Children under 12 are not required to wear masks, and people with chronic lung diseases may also be exempt. Wearing a mask is not required if it causes health and safety issues on a worksite, and professional athletes don’t need to wear masks while training. Check Victoria’s department of Health and Human Services for more exemptions.

While wearing a mask isn’t mandatory in other states or territories at the moment, wearing a mask voluntarily may stop the practice from becoming mandatory. Think of masks as a short term inconvenience that will alleviate a long term problem.

How Do Facemasks Work to Prevent the Spread of COVID-19

The coronavirus is spread via respiratory droplets expelled from an infected person when they talk, laugh, cough, sneeze or otherwise forcefully expel air. Wearing a facemask may protect you, as well as others from the virus by blocking droplets, either trapping them in the mask before they can spread, or stopping them from entering the airways of someone wearing a mask. This is referred to as source control. 

Some people with the virus are asymptomatic, meaning that they show no outward signs of having COVID-19 but can still pass the infection onto others. This is why wearing a mask, even when you feel healthy may be one of the most important things you can do to keep both yourself and others healthy. The primary purpose of a mask is to protect others.

Of course, face masks are only part of the overall strategy to slow or halt the spread of the coronavirus. Wearing a mask and maintaining social distancing reduces the risk of infection from droplets massively. Washing your hands properly and refraining from touching your face limits that chance even further. If enough people wear masks, social distance and observe proper hand hygiene then we may be able to get the coronavirus under control.

What Kind of Mask Should I Wear?

Both single use surgical masks and reusable cloth masks are recommended for use in the fight against COVID-19. 

Single use masks are convenient but ultimately not particularly cheap. Some single use surgical face masks in Australia are not classified for medical use - 286 types of mask were removed from the medical devices register in early August as they did not meet medical use standards. 

This doesn’t necessarily pose a problem for non-medical use, but they may not offer the level of protection the term “surgical mask” might imply. No matter if the mask is registered for medical use or not, disposable masks should be disposed of safely after use and you should thoroughly wash your hands after disposal.

Victoria’s chief health officer, Professor Brett Sutton, along with the World Health Organisation (WHO), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend three layer cloth face masks for general usage. 

Ideally cloth masks should have three layers - an outer layer of water-resistant fabric, a middle layer made of a blended material like polyester cotton or polypropylene and an absorbent inner layer made from cotton or another natural, absorbent fibre. 

Cloth masks are readily available for purchase online, but shop around as some vendors only offer one or two layers of cloth or add pointless bells and whistles to make them sound extra effective and drive up the price. No matter how appealing it sounds, a cloth mask impregnated with essential oils or with a cross weaving of copper thread, is no more effective than a well fitted three layer cloth mask. 

Masks with exhalation vents are not recommended at all, as the vent allows droplets to escape, essentially rendering them useless when it comes to protecting other people. Outside of healthcare settings, there is no need to wear a P2 or N95 mask, and these are best reserved for medical professionals.

For people unable to wear a mask for a valid reason, a face shield may be an appropriate substitute. For a face shield to be effective it must wrap around the sides of the face and extend to below the chin. Reusable face shields should be cleaned and disinfected after each use and single use face shields should never be reused. 

Can I Make My Own Mask?

You can absolutely craft your own homemade masks. Ensuring that you have the three recommended layers and that there is enough material to cover your mouth and nose with a tight fit may take a little bit of experimentation, but there are a number of guides on how to make fabric face masks online to help you on your way, such as:

  1. How to make a cloth mask - a straightforward guide by the Australian Government
  2. Tips on how to sew a three-layer fabric mask - a short WHO video with tips on how to make a three-layer mask.
  3. How to make your own face covering - a quick CDC video showing how to make a no-sew mask.

There are also a huge number of free PDF patterns available online, as well as numerous in depth YouTube tutorials for sewing masks if you are interested in trying different patterns or ensuring the best fit.

A scarf or bandana can be used as an ad-hoc face covering but it won’t be as effective as a mask.

How Should I Wear My Mask?

Depending on the style of mask you are using, you may need to take a different approach to putting on and fitting your mask.

Surgical/disposable masks

  • Before you put on your mask, make sure to observe proper hand hygiene by washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or wash your hands with an alcohol based hand sanitiser.
  • Check your disposable mask for any irregularities or tears. If none are present, ensure that you have the mask the right way up. This can usually be done by making sure the bendable nose bridge is on the top edge of the mask. 
  • Avoid touching the mask as much as you can. Hold the mask by the bindings if you can.
  • If the mask has ear loops, place them over your ears. If it has ties, tie the top set first and then the bottom set. If it uses elastic bands, pull the bottom band over your head and down to the base of your skull/the nape of your neck before pulling the top band down to get a good fit.
  • Once the mask is in place, mould the bridge around your nose and pull the bottom of the mask down over your mouth and chin. Make sure the mask fits your face snugly.
  • Once it is in place, try to avoid touching the mask. 
  • Dispose of the mask once you have used it. Although reusing a mask offers better protection than no mask at all, it is definitely not recommended.

Cloth masks

  • As with disposable masks, you should wash your hands for at least 20 seconds in soap and water or use an alcohol based hand sanitiser before putting on a cloth mask.
  • A cloth mask should fit snugly to the face, covering the nose and mouth without any loose sides or openings.
  • Cloth masks should be washed frequently, so having more than one cloth mask is advisable. Most cloth masks can be washed along with clothing in a regular washing cycle and tumble dried. If possible, drying a mask in direct sunlight is recommended.
  • Keep an eye on the integrity of a cloth mask, as repeat washing may cause wear and tear leading to rips or holes in the mask.

If you are suffering any of the symptoms of COVID-19 , schedule an appointment with a doctor for a test.

Even if you’re not showing any symptoms, wearing a mask and maintaining social distancing is one of the best ways you can help slow the spread of the coronavirus.

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