A comprehensive guide to face masks: types, management and safe disposal

Plus: what materials work best when it comes to home-made varieties

This photo taken on April 8, 2020 shows workers producing face masks that will be exported at a factory in Nanchang in China's central Jiangxi province. China OUT
 / AFP / STR
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On Saturday, April 4, the government made it mandatory for face masks to be worn when outside the home. Naturally, sales of face masks have since soared, with many pharmacists running out of stock.

But if you’re unable to get your own, there’s always the option of using a homemade mask. According to health sector spokeswoman Dr Farida Al Hosani, both versions can be used by residents to cover their nose and mouth when heading outdoors.

Whether you're trying to place an order or make your own, here's everything you need to know about face masks.

Why do we need face masks?

There has been much confusion over the need for face masks in the past few months, with the early assumption being that they were only required by healthcare professionals or those in close proximity to someone suffering from Covid-10.

However, the precautionary measures put in place by the government can only help keep the public safe, says Dr Ahmad Nusair, staff physician, infectious diseases, Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi.

“The virus that causes Covid-19 is extremely new. As such, there remains a great deal we do not know about it. As we continue to learn more about the virus, there is some evidence that widespread use of masks may help to contain its spread. In Dubai, the authorities have directed everyone who leaves their home to wear a mask. I would recommend that people check and follow local guidance to ensure they are following the most up to date information. This will help protect them, their family and the community,” he says.

Types of face masks

The main types of face masks people have been referred to are:

The N95 respirators

These protective devices have a very close facial fit, reducing a person’s exposure to small airborne particles. According to Dr Satyam Parmar, HOD Laboratory & Chairperson Infection Prevention & Control Committee, RAK Hospital, they are more useful in high risk areas – like during visits to hospitals where known Covid-19 patients are being admitted – and are therefore more suitable for healthcare workers or family members of patients.

Surgical Masks

Surgical masks are available to buy on amazon.ae
Surgical masks are available to buy on amazon.ae

Dr Parmar describes an ideal surgical mask as one with three layers of cloth or material, the outermost layer being moisture-proof to protect against droplets when an infected person sneezes, while the innermost material should be smooth enough to allow proper respiration.

While these types of masks do not fit tightly on the face, they still offer good filtration of bacteria, says Nusair.

“They provide an effective barrier against large airborne particles, particularly those expelled by the wearer when they are ill, helping limit the spread of infection.”

Re-usable masks

“The efficacy of re-usable masks depends on the type and manufacturer rating,” says Nusair. “If a re-usable mask did not come with instructions, the CDC suggests using it a maximum of five times. Regardless of the number of uses, people should discard a mask that is visibly damaged, comes into contact with fluid or that becomes hard to breathe through.

“In between uses, re-usable masks should be stored safely so they are not damaged or deformed.”

Homemade masks

A homemade face mask. The National / Sarah Maisey
A homemade face mask. The National / Sarah Maisey

Thinking of making your own mask? “Pore size is very important in masks since it decides what can permeate through it. But when making homemade masks, it’s not easy to figure out the pore size. Therefore, use cotton material, which is light, breathable soft and pliable. It should not be too thick and too thin. One layer is fine, but adding another layer is better,” says Parmar.

"Ideally, commercially produced masks are not re-usable. Homemade masks, even though they are not the first option, can be reused after washing with soap and antiseptic solution," he adds.

How to safely wear, manage and dispose of face masks

Before putting on a mask, users are advised to wash their hands with soap or, if that isn’t possible, use hand sanitiser, says Nusair. The mask should cover both the nose and mouth with no gaps between it and the face. Some masks have a thin metal band that can be bent to match the contours of the face to improve the seal.

Users should avoid touching the mask while wearing it. If they do so, they should immediately wash or sanitise their hands. If a mask becomes damp, replace it as soon as possible or dispose of it, if it is single use.

The best way to dispose of a face mask is to remove it using the bands that hold it on near the ears using both hands and avoid touching the mask itself, particularly the front. Once removed, disposable masks should be placed in a waste container immediately. Normal face masks are not meant to be reused as they lose their effectiveness in disease prevention.

After removing a mask, it’s important to wash or sanitise hands properly.

Face mask myths busted

The principal myth that needs to be busted is that a mask offers the wearer absolute protection from the virus, adds Nusair.

“Setting aside its proper use, it is important that people do not see using a mask as making them invincible. Whether wearing a mask or not, proper hand hygiene, avoiding touching the face and physical distancing are required to help protect people and the community.”