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Coronavirus and face masks – what you need to know

Medical Director Bupa Global and UK Insurance
20 May 2020

This article was written in line with the best available evidence and guidelines at the time of publishing. Keep up-to-date with the latest guidelines on coronavirus at

If you need to go out for work, food or exercise, you may be wondering if you should wear a face mask to protect yourself from coronavirus. The research in this area is still very new, and guidance can differ between countries. Not to mention all the different types of face masks out there. So it’s no surprise many of us are left feeling confused and uncertain on how to proceed. Here I try to clear up some common misconceptions surrounding face masks, and explain what we know so far.

a woman with a face mask at her desk

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

You may have heard the term ‘face covering’ as well as ‘face masks’. So what’s the difference?

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, or you can even make your own. Public Health England has issued guidance on how you can make your own cloth face coverings, including one type that you can make from an old t-shirt (no sewing required!).

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.


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.

You may have seen people out and about wearing surgical masks or respirators. But with the shortages healthcare workers are currently facing with PPE, it’s really important that we now leave these types of masks for the healthcare workers, who need them most.

Who should wear a face covering and where?

In the UK, the current advice from the government is to wear a face covering if you can, when you’re in an enclosed space where social distancing might not be possible. At the moment, this isn’t part of UK law. So wearing a face covering comes down to your own personal choice. According to the guidance, it’s only necessary to wear a face covering when you’re likely to come into contact with people you don’t normally meet.

In practice, this means it’s advisable to wear a face covering:

  • on public transport
  • in shops
  • in any other crowded, indoor space where you may come into contact with others you don’t normally meet

On the other hand, there’s no need to wear a face covering if you’re:

  • outside
  • at work or school, so long as you’re mixing with the same group of people and can practise social distancing

Face coverings should not be worn by:

  • children under two years of age
  • anyone who would find it difficult to manage one – such as a child without supervision, or if you have a health condition that affects your airways and lungs

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. There’s evidence that medical face masks may help to reduce that chance.

Unfortunately, scientists just don’t have enough good information yet about how well homemade face masks work in preventing transmission of COVID-19. If anything, it’s thought that like medical masks, they would be more effective in preventing you passing the virus to others, rather than protecting you from getting it. Not having the evidence doesn’t mean something doesn’t work; it just means it’s too early yet to say for sure. And in the absence of good evidence, you may take the view that – as per the government advice – it’s worth giving them a try.

What we do know about face masks and coverings is that they’re really only effective if you wear them correctly, whilst also practising good overall hygiene measures.

How to wear a face covering correctly

One of the big 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. If you decide to wear a face covering, 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, but still allows 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.
  • 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.
  • Wash it regularly – you can just put it in with your normal laundry.

Remember to stay safe

One of the big problems with wearing face masks and 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: if you do choose to wear 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 be helping to keep yourself safe, as well as those around you.
Dr Luke James
Medical Director Bupa Global and UK Insurance

    • How to make and wear a cloth face covering. Public Health England., published 11 May 2020
    • Staying safe outside your home. Cabinet Office., published 11 May 2020
    • Q&A: Masks and COVID-19. World Health Organization., published 26 April 2020
    • Coronavirus outbreak FAQs: what you can and can't do. Cabinet Office., updated 11 May 2020
    • Advice on the use of masks in the context of COVID-19. Interim guidance. World Health Organization., published 6 April 2020
    • Greenhalgh T, Schmid MB, Czypionka T et al. Face masks for the public during the covid-19 crisis. BMJ 2020;369:m1435
    • Stay at home: guidance for households with possible coronavirus (COVID-19) infection. Public Health England., updated 28 April 2020

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