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For many decades face masks have been worn in healthcare settings to protect humans from airborne viral particles and maintain good hygiene. Nowadays, most people across Australia are required to wear a face mask in indoor settings and crowded outdoor spaces.

While it can be uncomfortable or inconvenient, the evidence suggests that mask wearing is effective at preventing the spread of airborne viruses – but only when people are wearing their masks properly.

Read on to find out what the purpose of face masks are, how effective they are and how to wear them properly.

What is the purpose of a face mask?

Face masks and respirators are recommended to help prevent the spread of airborne viruses such as COVID-19. They can also be used where there is poor air quality, for example in construction workplaces or during bushfires.

Face masks are designed to trap respiratory droplets that we release into the air when we breathe, talk or cough. These droplets may contain particles of the virus, even if you are vaccinated or don’t have any symptoms.

In addition to preventing you from spreading viral particles, a face mask will protect you from inhaling respiratory droplets from other people in proximity to you.

Do face masks work?

Face masks have long been used in hospitals and medical settings to successfully reduce the spread of viruses.

Research suggests that face masks in public settings do help prevent the spread of airborne viruses when the majority of the population is using masks. However, masks need to be fitted properly and used correctly to be effective.

Types of face masks

There are several different types of face masks available in Australia. Some are regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration, others are not. Some can be used more than once while others should be discarded after every use.

The most common types of face masks include:

Medical / surgical masks

Medical masks, also known as surgical masks, are single use masks made with a non woven polypropylene layer. These masks should be thrown away safely after every use.

You should not use a surgical mask if it has holes in it or is damaged as this will not prevent the spread of respiratory droplets.

Surgical masks are typically blue on the outside and white on the inside. They come in varying levels of protection and are regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

N95 masks

N95 masks are particulate filter respirators. They are also known as P2 masks and KN95 masks in Australia.

N95 masks help filter out fine particles in the air and protect against airborne viruses. They’re also used to protect against poor air quality, such as during a bushfire.

Just like any other type of mask, N95 masks need to be fitted properly to be effective. It is generally recommended that you don’t reuse N95 masks, although some sources claim that reusing them is ok.

Reusable cloth masks

Cloth masks are effective at stopping respiratory droplets being spread when you talk or cough. They also protect you from respiratory droplets from other people.

Reusable face masks are not regulated in Australia. Experts recommend they should have at least 3 layers of cloth and should be washed daily to prevent self contamination.

When should you wear a face mask?

Recommendations on what situations you should wear a face mask vary depending on where you live. Mask regulations change based on the current situation. Factors like infection rate, new variants and the type of setting can all affect the government’s decision making.

It’s important to follow mask regulations, but you can also wear your mask in situations where it is not mandatory to protect yourself and those around you. Don’t forget to practice social distancing and good hygiene too.

How to wear a face mask safely

Face masks need to be worn properly in order to be effective. Masks with holes or one-way valves are not suitable for protecting against airborne viruses.

Follow these tips to wear your face mask safely:

  • Wash your hands before you put the mask on and after you take it off
  • Make sure the mask covers both your mouth and nose
  • Ensure the mask fits properly and that there are no gaps at the sides
  • Avoid touching the mask while you are wearing it
  • Do not wear your mask around your neck or under your chin
  • Do not remove your mask to talk to someone
  • Take the mask off using the ear straps, rather than touching the middle of the mask
  • Dispose of single-use masks safely
  • Store reusable masks in a zip lock bag until you have time to wash them
  • Clean reusable masks at least daily
  • Do not wear a wet mask

How to clean a reusable fabric mask

You can hand wash your reusable mask or put it in the washing machine with your other clothes. Use soap or detergent and hot water between 60 to 90 degrees celsius.

Do not wear your mask wet. To dry your cloth mask, lay it flat in direct sunlight if possible. You can also put the mask in a clothes dryer with your other washing.

Summary

Face masks have become a part of daily life for most of us in Australia. Using masks correctly and ensuring they fit properly is an effective way to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and other airborne viruses. Follow the guidelines for your state or territory about when and where you should wear your face mask for the best protection.