COVID-19: Understanding Face Masks


From Monday 15th June it will be compulsory for people to wear face coverings when traveling on public transport in England. This is in addition to the government’s advice that face coverings should also be worn in any enclosed public space where social distancing is difficult to keep.
But what does this mean, why is this being introduced and what counts as a face covering?

To unpack this, we need to understand what face coverings / face masks are what they’re used for.

Speaking in general terms, face masks can be broken down into two main categories; face coverings and respirators:

Face Coverings

  • Face mask/covering
  • Type I face masks
  • Type II face masks
  • Type IIR surgical masks


  • Filtering Face Pieces
  • Half/Full-Face masks
  • Powered Air Purifying Respirators



What are they?

Face coverings is a general term used to describe non-certified face masks, such as those made at home or many items found on Amazon. These have no proven bacterial filtration efficiency (BFE).
Type I face masks have a BFE of ≥95%
Type II and Type IIR face masks have a BFE of ≥98%.
The breathing resistance for Type I, Type II and Type IIR masks, are exactly the same.

Type I, II and IIR face masks are all medical grade masks tested in the direction of exhalation (inside to outside) and take into account the efficiency of bacterial filtration.

Face coverings of this can help to stop the wearer from infecting the surrounding environment. However, they are not effective at protecting the wearer from airbourne viruses and diseases such as coronavirus.

As of Monday 15th June 2020, face coverings will become mandatory for all people traveling on public transport in England and their use is being strongly advised when entering an enclosed public space where social distancing is not possible. To ensure hospitals and care facilities have enough supply, it is recommended that the general public do not use surgical masks or respirators, but instead use general purpose masks, such as homemade coverings or our Type II face masks.

While face coverings are used to protect others from the wearer transmitting infection, they are not a replacement for social distancing.

Furthermore, if you have symptoms of COVID-19 (cough, and/or high temperature, and/or loss of, or change in, your normal sense of smell or taste – anosmia), you and your household must isolate at home: wearing a face covering does not change this.

What is a Type II Face Mask?

Type II face masks (EN14683) are medical grade face masks made up of a protective three-ply construction that prevents large particles from the wearer reaching the patient or working surfaces. Type II masks however are not water resistant and are ineffective when blood or bodily fluids are present.

Characteristics of Type II face masks include:

  • Pleat style with ear loops
  • Protective three-layer construction

What is a Type IIR Face Mask?

Also adhering to EN14683, TypeIIR face masks are made up of a three-ply construction to prevent large particles form the wearer reaching the patient or working environment with added splash resistance to protect against blood and other bodily fluids. Type IIR face masks are most commonly used in surgery.

Characteristics of Type IIR face masks include:

  • Pleat style with ear loops
  • Protective three-layer construction
  • Splash resistant layer against bodily fluids.



What are they?

Respirators or Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) are filtering devices used to protect the wearer from breathing in respiratory hazards in the environment.

RPE can come in a variety of forms and types, but generally can either be:

  • Non-powered – relying on the wearer’s breathing to draw in air through the filter; or
  • Powered – utilising a motor to pass air through a filter to the wearer

These can then be broken down further into:

  • Tight-fitting face pieces – which rely on a suitable seal being formed between the respirator and the wearer’s face so that no contaminated air can be breathed in (tight-fitting RPE requires face fit testing before use); and
  • Loose-fitting face pieces – which rely on a constant supply of clean air being provided to the wearer that contaminated air cannot leak in (loose-fitting RPE does not require face fit testing before use).

Respirators can provide effective protection for the wearer from viral transmissions; however, due to limited global stock, it is recommended that they be used primarily by healthcare providers. For further information, and find out what would be most suitable in your situation, please get in touch with our RPE Experts today.

Filtering Face Pieces

In Europe, Filtering Face Pieces (FFP) are classified into three categories (FFP1/2/3) in accordance with European classifications (EN 149:2001 & EN 143), taking into account the leakage to the face and filtration efficiency of air inhaled through the mask by the wearer.

  • P1 – 80% filtration efficiency
  • P2 – 94% filtration efficiency
  • P3 – 99% filtration efficiency

American respirators use a different (but comparable) three category rating for their FFP respirators.

  • N95 – 95% filtration efficiency
  • N99 – 99% filtration efficiency
  • N100 – 99.97% filtration efficiency

Please note – N95/99/100 respirators cannot officially be recommended for use in Europe due to the difference in classifications and testing methods. However, in practice during the current situation, a more flexible approach may be taken by some users.

Half and Full-Face Masks

Half and Full-Face Masks are reusable respiratory devices that often utilise exchangeable filters for protecting the wearers respiratory health. Like Filtering Face Pieces, Half and Full-Face Masks use the same P1/2/3 N/95/99/100 classification for particulate filtration, but can also provide protection against non-particle hazardous substances when used with the appropriate filters.

Half and Full-Face Masks are popular in industry settings, but are not as common in healthcare settings as Filtering Face Pieces, as they would need to be decontaminated after each use.

Powered Air Purifying Respirators

Powered Air Purifying Respirators (PAPR) is another form of respirator used to protect the wearers respiratory health. PAPR utilise battery operated blower units to draw contaminated air through a filter and distributes it around the wearer’s head in a hood or helmet.

PAPR devices with TH2 (P3) filters offer a higher Assigned Protection Factor (APF) than their filtering facepiece counterparts. The APF is a number rating that indicates how much protection RPE is capable of providing. FFP3 respirators have an APF of 20, showing that they will reduce the wearer’s exposure by at least a factor of 20 if used properly. Whereas a PAPR device fitted with a TH2 filter offers an APF of 20, reducing the wearer’s exposure by at least a factor of 20.

Beyond higher levels of protection, PAPR devices can be used for extended periods of time and offer full face protection.

For more information on personal protective equipment (PPE) and respiratory protective equipment (RPE), please get in touch with our RPE Experts today.