Ever since coronavirus began spreading across the world, there has been some debate on the use of face masks, including who should wear them and the benefits of them. The advice in England remains that the general public shouldn’t try to buy medical face masks, as these need to be reserved for frontline staff and key workers only.
From 15 June in England, it has been mandatory to wear a face covering on public transport, and people who don’t wear one can be refused on transport and fined £100, apart from people with medical conditions, children under 11 and anyone who lip-reads. In Scotland from 10 July, it’s compulsory to wear one in shops and has been on public transport since June – the Glasgow Subway, Edinburgh trams and taxis – except for people with certain medical conditions and children under five.
In Wales, face coverings will be mandatory on public transport from 27 July, including in taxis. The Welsh Government is also advising people to wear masks in crowded places where social distancing is not possible, but this is not compulsory. Face coverings are set to become mandatory on public transport in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, but for now they are encouraged.
In England, there has been wide criticism over the government’s recommendation to wear a face covering on public transport only.
Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the UK’s national science academy, said everyone should carry a face covering when they leave home. “Not wearing a face covering should be regarded as ‘anti-social’ in the same way as drink driving or failing to wear a seatbelt,” he said.
Wearing a face covering will be even more important as lockdown measures start to lift, as from 4 July in England pubs, restaurants, hotels, cinemas, museums and art galleries started to reopen, and social distancing guidance has been reduced from 2m to 1m.
Uber has also made face coverings compulsory for customers and drivers, while taking additional safety measures such as regularly sanitising their cars. Customers will also be reminded to sit in the backseat only and to roll down the windows for ventilation.
The latest guidelines extend to hospitals, where all visitors and outpatients in England are advised to wear face coverings. Health staff will now wear surgical masks at all times. These coverings can be made from things you’ve already got at home, like an old T-shirt, or even a sports sock with just a few well-made snips with scissors and a little bit of sewing. But if you’re not so confident in your creative abilities, there are plenty of brands are creating their own too, which we’ve rounded up below.
What is the difference between a face covering and a medical face mask?
According to professor Trish Greenhalgh, professor of primary care health sciences at the University of Oxford, a medical face mask is designed to protect healthcare workers from germs emitted by sick patients.
“Many infections are spread by droplets, which are relatively large when they first come out as a cough or a sneeze but become much smaller as they travel through the air and become aerosolised. A medical mask must have a very fine weave because its job is to protect the wearer from tiny aerosolised particles,” she told The Independent.
A cloth face mask, however, works by blocking the bigger droplets before they become aerosolised. “Its job isn’t to protect the wearer but to block the source of infection (what’s known as ‘source control’). Woven fabrics like cotton are very good at source control but less good at protecting the wearer,” she says.
The government was clear in its guidelines that face coverings are not the same as a face mask such as the surgical masks or respirators used as part of personal protective equipment by healthcare and other workers, and it reiterated that these supplies must continue to be reserved for those who need it.
The World Health Organization (WHO) updated its guidelines on 5 June to recommend that governments ask everyone to wear fabric face masks in public areas where there is a risk of transmission of Covid-19, in order to help reduce the spread of the pandemic disease. However, it has stressed that face coverings are only one of a range of tools that can reduce the risk of viral transmission, and should not give a false sense of protection.
What are the benefits of wearing a homemade face covering?
“The main benefit is most of your germs will be caught in it, making you less of an infection risk to others. My mask protects you; yours protects me”, explains professor Greenhalgh.
“I think we will soon see more and more people wearing face coverings in public places and that these coverings will soon become a sign that it’s safe to interact,” she adds.
Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading however, stresses that evidence of the effectiveness of wearing face masks to prevent spread of infection is limited.
“If not universally enforced as a recommendation it will do virtually nothing to prevent spread, and the risks of increasing infection might even outweigh the benefits,” he told The Independent, adding that mask-wearing is much less important than social distancing measures and proper hand hygiene.
Who should be wearing a face covering?
The official advice from the government’s Covid-19 recovery strategy document explains that face coverings shouldn’t be worn by everyone.
“Face-coverings should not be used by children under the age of two, or those who may find it difficult to manage them correctly, for example primary age children unassisted, or those with respiratory conditions.”
Wearing a face covering is going to be part of daily life, and although we can’t speak for the effectiveness of these mask coverings, we’ve rounded up some independent brands who are making their own.
You can trust our independent round-ups. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections. This revenue helps us to fund journalism across The Independent.
This Midlands-based casual wear label has designed face coverings to buy from £9.99, having diverted its manufacturing process to create a range of different styles.
They come in varying machine washable prints, such as camo and tie-dye, and can be bought individually or in packs of three.
Made in sizes for both adults and kids, some packs for the latter donate all profits to the NHS, too.
Known for its high quality silk eye masks and pillows that protect your skin and hair as you sleep, this luxury brand has turned its hand to face coverings.
Available in three designs – black, leopard print and blush pink – the mask is crafted from 100 per cent mulberry silk.
It features adjustable ear straps which makes for a comfier fit, and an adjustable nose wire inside to keep the covering secure.
At £39 each, they are pricey, but you’re paying for the premium materials which will make these masks last.
This brand is headed up by 27-year-old freelance theatre prop maker and set designer, Alice Cox, who started creating bespoke face masks from old designer fabrics from her spare room in Kennington, London.
She has designed them with a pocket large enough to fit a filter and non-elastic band that will minimise irritation around your ears.
To place an order, email your choice of colour and material to [email protected]. One mask will cost you £10, unless you want the liberty-printed style, which is £15.
This London-based fashion designer and label, Florence Bridge, creates contemporary womenswear pieces with a sustainability focus at its centre.
In light of the coronavirus outbreak, the brand has created unisex face masks for £12 in a myriad of colours, prints and fabrics, which are machine washable.
Each one has a 100 per cent cotton lining for maximum comfort against your skin.
A portion of profits from the sale of the masks will be going to Fuel Our Frontline charity, who are delivering essential groceries to hospital workers around the UK.
Manchester-based apparel brand, Wawa Clothing, has diverted its production towards making face masks made from 100 per cent organic ripstop cotton.
It’s washable, can be kept securely around your mouth and nose with the elastic loops and the label is made from recycled polyester.
They are available in black or forest green and cost £12.
For £13, Good Ordering is selling reusable face covers made from two layers of 100 per cent natural fabric, with at least one layer that is densely woven for more protection and elastic straps, which also allows you to insert a filter on the inside. They’re currently sold out, but you can leave your email here to be contacted when they become available again.
The face covers come in one size for adults, but you can request extra-large as well as children’s sizes. They are also selling filters too, which you can buy here.
All the fabrics used to make the face covers are made from recycled or remnants of material in collaboration with a local costume professional, and while it washes the fabrics at a high temperature before production, Good Ordering advises to wash the product before use too.
Here you can buy a four-pack of masks for £15 and even design your own artwork to decorate them. If you’re not feeling creative, you can also shop designs that are already made.
The masks are available in small, medium, large or extra-large – so pick the size you want and you’ll get four of the same in your pack.
The brand advises to wash the masks after each use, at 60 degrees.
It describes the fabric of the masks as high-quality and breathable, lasting up to 100 washes, but advises not to tumble dry.
Luxury womenswear label, Plumo, has made protective masks costing £10 each, with four layers of organic linen, which the brand uses for its naturally antibacterial properties, as it’s not an easy environment for germs to breed in
Available in 19 different colours and prints, they can be washed at 90 degrees and are reusable.
If you want bold, colourful designs for your face covering, head to Newt, which has designed reusable, washable face masks in its signature fun prints on biodegradable fabrics.
The material has a tight weave like cotton, but absorbs moisture better than cotton does.
All its masks are made for adults, have adjustable ear straps and are reversible too.
There’s six designs and each one is £15.
Husband and wife duo, Tim and Ara, are behind Aeibe, creating filtered face masks for £45.
It follows scuppered plans for a new collection with material coming from Italy before the coronavirus hit, so Tim and Ara got creative and sourced fabric from Liberty of London instead. The result are pretty floral patterned masks that add a bit of fun to trying times.
Every mask is made in England with 100 per cent cotton lining and 100 per cent non-woven polypropylene filters from Korea on the inside. It also has a soft nose clip to help it shape to your face and stretchy ear loops to keep it secure.
They also come with a cotton bag to keep it safe when you’re not wearing it and a spare filter.
Just make sure to remove your filter and hand wash it at 30 degrees before you put the mask in the washing machine.