Face masks and face coverings – what you need to know

Luke James
Group Deputy Chief Medical Officer and Director of Healthcare Transformation
23 February 2021
Next review due February 2024

This is an updated version of an article last reviewed on 22 July. Keep up-to-date with the latest guidelines on coronavirus at

Face coverings: what were once an unfamiliar sight have become part of everyday life, as we work together to slow the spread of coronavirus.

It’s compulsory to wear a face covering in certain situations. Here, I’ll explain the difference between a face mask and face covering, when you should wear one, and how to do so correctly.

What’s the difference between a face mask and a face covering?

Face coverings

A face covering can be any cloth item that you use to cover your mouth and nose - for example, a scarf or bandana. You can buy single-use or reusable face coverings or make your own. Public Health England has instructions on how you can make your own cloth face coverings.  

Face masks

Medical or surgical face masks are those worn by healthcare and other workers, as part of personal protective equipment (PPE). They tend to be blue or green in colour, fit flat against the face from the nose to the chin, and have pleats or folds.

Face visor or face shield

You may have seen these around – they are plastic ‘shields’ that cover your face. The guidance is that if you want to wear one you should also wear a face covering too. This is because the shield doesn’t cover your nose or mouth well enough.


A respirator is a special type of face mask for healthcare workers that gives even more protection. They’re designed to be used during certain medical procedures. Respirators have to be properly fitted. These are tight-fitting to the face, circular or oval in shape, and sometimes have large valves.

The government guidance specifically advises that the public use ‘face coverings’, so that medical masks can be kept for healthcare workers who need them most.

Who should wear a face covering and where?

The UK advice is to wear a face covering if you’re in an enclosed public space with people you don’t normally meet, and social distancing isn’t possible. This includes shops, GP surgeries, hospitals, public transport, places of worship and most other enclosed public spaces. There is a full list on GOV UK, so check there for details.

Most places will have a sign on the door to remind you that you need to wear a face covering. If you don’t wear a covering, you may be refused entry and issued a fine by the police.

You can remove your face covering if:

  • staff ask you to, in order to verify your age
  • requested by a police officer or other official
  • you need to take medication
  • you need to eat or drink, but only if necessary

When don’t you need to wear a face covering?

There are some circumstances where it may not be suitable to wear a face covering. For example:

  • children under the age of 11 
  • if you need to communicate with someone who relies on lip reading
  • if you have a mental or physical illness or disability that would make it difficult to use a face covering or cause you severe distress
  • if you need to avoid injury or harm

What are exemption cards?

Some people aren’t able to wear a face covering for lots of different reasons that might not be obvious. For example, you may be exempt because of your age, health or disability. You don’t need to show anyone any evidence of this, but you might feel more comfortable wearing a badge or carrying an exemption card. This isn’t required by law – it’s your choice if you’d like to do so. You can download a template from the government website to show on your phone.

These regulations differ for different parts of the UK. You can find out more about the regulations on face coverings in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland via the dedicated government websites.

How well do face masks and face coverings work?

You may be surprised to hear that the main aim of wearing a face covering is to stop you spreading the coronavirus to others, rather than to protect yourself. When you cough or sneeze you release droplets in the air. Face masks and coverings work by stopping these droplets from spreading and infecting other people. Many people with coronavirus don’t have any symptoms, so it’s possible to have the virus without knowing it, and pass it to others.

The best available evidence suggests that, when used correctly, they may help prevent you passing the virus to others, rather than protecting you from getting it. Face coverings are only effective if you wear them correctly, whilst also practising social distancing and washing your hands regularly.

How to wear a face covering correctly

One of the biggest mistakes people make when wearing a face mask or covering is not wearing them properly. This can make them ineffective or quite possibly do more harm than good. Follow these tips to make sure you’re wearing it right.

  • Take care to wash your hands or use hand sanitiser before putting your face covering on and after you’ve taken it off.
  • Make sure it covers both your mouth and nose and fits securely against the side of your face using ties or ear loops. It should also be made of at least two layers and allow you to breathe comfortably.
  • Don’t keep touching or fiddling with the covering when it’s on, especially the front part, or the part that’s in contact with your mouth and nose. Only touch the straps or ties when handling your face covering.
  • Don’t keep the covering on other parts of your face or head when you’re not using them. For example, letting it hang round your neck or pulling it up to your forehead.
  • If your face covering is reusable, wash it regularly – you can put it in with your normal laundry but try to wash it at the highest temperature that’s appropriate for the fabric.
  • Change your face covering if it becomes damp, damaged or you’ve touched it and never share your face covering with someone else.
  • When you’re not using your face covering, store it in a plastic bag (not on surfaces) until you can wash it.
  • If your face covering is single use, dispose of it in a residual waste bin and don’t recycle it.

Remember to stay safe

One problem with wearing face coverings is that they can give people a false sense of security. If you, or any of your household have symptoms of coronavirus, you still need to stay at home. Wearing a face covering doesn’t change that. And it’s still really important – whether you’re wearing a face covering or not – to wash your hands frequently and keep your distance. There’s no room for complacency here. These measures are known to be effective, and stopping them just because you’re wearing a face covering could have a negative effect.

So, the main message from me is, when you’re using a face covering, be sure to use it in the right way. But most importantly, combine it with good hygiene measures. By staying at home if you have symptoms, washing your hands regularly and practising social distancing, you’ll help keep yourself and others safe.

Luke James
Dr Luke James
Group Deputy Chief Medical Officer and Director of Healthcare Transformation

    • How to make a cloth face covering. Public Health England., updated 15 July 2020
    • Staying safe outside your home. Cabinet Office., updated 24 June 2020
    • Q&A: masks and COVID-19. World Health Organization., updated 7 June 2020
    • Coronavirus outbreak FAQs: what you can and can't do. Cabinet Office., updated 17 July 2020
    • Face masks and coverings to be worn by all NHS hospital staff and visitors. Department of Health and Social Care Press Release., published 5 June 2020
    • Face coverings: when to wear one and how to make your own. Cabinet Office., updated 4 December 2020
    • Face coverings to be mandatory in shops and supermarkets from 24 July. Department of Health and Social Care Press Release. published 14 July 2020

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