Face masks: should we all be wearing them?

As lockdown measures are being relaxed, should we be wearing face masks when commuting, shopping, and meeting other people? Here's our verdict

face mask
(Image credit: Getty Images)

It seems that Government is edging towards the mandatory wearing of face masks as the UK begins a slow exit out of coronavirus lockdown. But without firm legislation in place, how are people to make the decision whether or not to wear face masks in public? 

We evaluate the current evidence available, to help you make an informed decision about whether or not you should be wearing a face mask while outside or in an enclosed public place. 

For more health-related advice, visit our hub page.

Should everyone be wearing face masks?

The answer, albeit with some qualifications, is 'yes'. There is plenty of recent, robust medical research that concludes that even basic masks can help prevent the spread of infection, including a recent publication by Stanford University. As early as April, Prof. David Heymann, WHO advisor, spoke about the importance of wearing masks on BBC news. 

Masks aren't perfect: their effectiveness at blocking out the tiny particles saliva responsible for transmitting the virus is around 90 per cent, and, of course, the virus can also enter through the eyes. 

However, given the current difficulties surrounding the implementation of social distancing on public transport. and in shops, the limited protection that masks give both the wearer and the people she/he comes into contact with is much better than nothing.

Where and when should I be wearing a face mask?

So far, the Government is only saying that we should 'aim' to wear masks on public transport and in enclosed spaces where social distancing isn't possible. It's a particularly good idea to wear one when you go to a supermarket or pharmacy, as it's very difficult to avoid contact with other people in a confined space. 

It's also a very good idea to wear a face mask if you'll be coming into (essential and unavoidable) contact with someone coming into your home to do an urgent repair or to care for you, perhaps. And you might ask them to wear a face mask if they do so, too (carers, of course, should have the necessary protective equipment, but we've all read about the shortages there). 

Should you wear a face mask in the open air if you are observing social distancing? No. In fact, some medical professionals have suggested that wearing a mask all the time may make some people complacent and not keep the requiring 2m distance from others.

How do I wear a face mask correctly?

If you do choose to wear a face mask, make sure you wear and use it correctly. Make sure that while worn the mask covers your nose and mouth, and – this is crucial – that you do not touch it with your hands while wearing it. You must wash or disinfect your hands before removing the mask. Then, if it's a single-use blue mask, put it in the bin, or, if it's a multi-use mask, take it off, then carefully fold it away and keep it somewhere that doesn't get into contact with outside germs (hint: not on the console table in the hallway next to wallets and phones).

Should I wash my face mask?

The answer is 'no', unless you're using a homemade mask made from cotton – simply replace whatever you're using as a filter regularly and wash the mask itself. Shop bought masks are likely to lose effectiveness after being washed, particularly if hot water was used.

Will a face mask stop me getting coronavirus?

It's not a guarantee unless you're wearing an N-95 respirator – and it can't be stressed enough that even if you can get your hands on some, you should think twice because they're still desperately needed by health workers and the vulnerable. And it may be that you can't buy them anyway because they may be available only to these sectors of the community. 

So, if you want to wear a face mask, wear a simple blue mask that can be purchased online (see below), or make your own from a piece of cloth. There are some that you can buy with visors built into hats, too. You won't get 100 per cent protection from the virus (you'd have to wear a visor to achieve that, in any case), but you can help slow the transmission of Covid-19.

10PCS Disposable Dustproof Breathable Face Mouth Cover for Paint, Garden, Blue A73 | £8.88 at Amazon
This best seller from Amazon is a pretty straight forward example of a face mask, but it gets the job done.View Deal

Masks with 2 pcs Filter Paper Protection Mouth Mask | £3.99 at Amazon
With replaceable filters, this face mask is designed to catch droplets of moisture and protect your mouth and nose in the process. Once used, simply pop in the wash and replace the filter.
View Deal

O'lemon Full Face Protective Shield Visor | £2.38 at Amazon
If you know someone working on the front line who doesn't have suitable protective equipment, it may be worth picking up a protective face mask in a bid to help them stay safe until PPE stocks are distributed to all who need it.View Deal

Kids and Adult Cotton Face Mask | £10.00 at Etsy
Suitable for adults and children, these patterned face masks are reusable – simply wash between uses – and boast some super adorable patterns that we simply can't get enough of.View Deal

Organic Cotton Face Masks | £8.95 at Etsy
A great option for those with sensitive skin, or who are concerned about the environmental impact of single-use face masks, these organic cotton face masks can be washed between uses and boast beautiful patterned finishes.

Please note: we totally understand that single use masks are essential for many at this time and whole-heartedly support the use of disposable face masks for those who need to protect themselves, we're simply seeking to offer a more sustainable alternative to those who want it and for whom it's a suitable solution. View Deal

Reusable Cotton Face Masks & Filters | from £4.49 at Wowcher
These reusable face masks come with replaceable cotton filters which can be exchanged after a single use.View Deal

20 disposable 3-layer face masks | Only £17.49/$21.29 on Newchic

Block viruses, dirt, dust and pollen with these three-layer face masks. They are breathable and designed to sit more comfortably on the face.

View Deal

Disposable child's face mask | Only £4.92/$5.99 on Newchic

This disposable face mask is designed for children. It is more comfortable for them to wear than adult sizes but still offers optimum protection.View Deal

Alternative face coverings

The UK government is yet to enforce the wearing of face masks but have said that it is a good idea to cover your space – not least to stop you spreading the virus to others. There are great alternatives to standard face masks that will cover your mouth and face and can be used for general wear after the pandemic.

Buff Coolnet UV+® Buff | From £9.99 on Wiggle/ $25.99 on Amazon US

This Buff scarf can be worn as a headband, hairband, scarf, bandana or in this case, a face mask. The material is lightweight and breathable, so perfect for the warmer weather. Plus, it has UV protection so great for sun protection, too.View Deal

Infinity scarves | From £2.09 on Amazon

Choose from a huge range of colours and prints – with lots of stock available ASAP – on Amazon. Check the materials with a closer knit to offer better protection.

View Deal

Removable sun visor fisherman hat | Only £13.13/$15.99 on Newchic

This fisherman hat will not only keep you shielded from the sun but includes an anti-droplet sun visor to shield your face. It comes in black, khaki, yellow, pink and orange.View Deal

Anti-fog shielded fisherman hat with embroidery | Only £16.42/$19.99 on Newchic

Full-face protection and good sun protection in one, this pretty fisherman hat is embroidered with a daisy pattern. Get it in black, navy, pink or green.View Deal

Cotton Paisley Bandana 3 pack | £3.49/$8.99 on Amazon

Buying a multipack of bandanas is a good idea so you have spares while you hot wash the rest. These paisley ones remind us are a classic look that can be paired with a number of looks – just incase you were worried about your lewk.View Deal

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Anna Cottrell
Anna Cottrell

In 2018 Anna moved into the world of interiors from academic research in the field of literature and urban space and joined Realhomes.com as Staff Writer. She has a longterm interest in space-making and the evolution of interior style. She can also be found looking for the latest innovations in sustainable homewares or buying yet more bedding.