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What Is A Face Mask?

Posted by Jamie McKay on August 28, 2020

the images shows a woman adjusting a face mask

With the news, this week, that secondary school pupils in some areas in England will have to wear face masks in certain parts of their schools when they go back in September, now is as good a time as any to answer a question we have seen asked often, what is a face mask?

Definition of A Face Mask

According to the Collins Dictionary:

“A face mask is a device that you wear over your face, for example to prevent yourself from breathing bad air or from spreading germs, or to protect your face when you are in a dangerous situation.”

Obviously, this definition was written before the Coronavirus pandemic, when face masks and other words like furlough and social distancing were barely mentioned.

As far as the World Health Organisation (WHO) is concerned, there are two types of face mask, medical and non-medical.

Their definition of a medical mask is:

“Medical masks are defined as surgical or procedure masks that are flat or pleated; they are affixed to the head with straps that go around the ears or head or both. Their performance characteristics are tested according to a set of standardised test methods (ASTM F2100, EN 14683, or equivalent) that aim to balance high filtration, adequate breathability and optionally, fluid penetration resistance.”

So, the disposable light blue face masks that most people are wearing in supermarkets are classed as medical face masks.

Non-medical masks are any other fabric mask or face covering.

It is important to point out that while the WHO issue advice it is up to each country’s government to draw their own conclusions when creating rules to prevent the further spread of corona virus or Covid-19.

the image shows a face mask with the words don't panic written above it

What Is A Face Mask in the UK?

Just to add to the covid confusion, or coronafusion, although they are mainly called face masks, the UK Government refer to them as ‘face coverings’ in the current guidance.

They say that a face covering should:

“Cover your nose and mouth while allowing you to breathe comfortably

fit comfortably but securely against the side of the face

be secured to the head with ties or ear loops

be made of a material that you find to be comfortable and breathable, such as cotton

ideally include at least two layers of fabric (the World Health Organisation recommends three depending on the fabric used)

unless disposable, it should be able to be washed with other items of laundry according to fabric washing instructions and dried without causing the face covering to be damaged.”

The word ‘ideally’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting here as they also say, in another section of the same guidance, that:

“You may also use a scarf, bandana, religious garment or hand-made cloth covering but these must securely fit round the side of the face.”

The Science Behind Wearing Face Masks

As we previously mentioned although science is science, with much of how coronavirus spreads and how it affects people being unknown, there are changes being made to the guidance all the time.

What we do know for sure is that it is mainly transmitted between people via respiratory droplets and contact routes.

One of the reasons that there are differing views on the wearing of face masks in non-medical environments is that wearing a mask will not stop the wearer from getting coronavirus.

This is why initially the scientific advice in the UK was that this wouldn’t have much of an effect in stopping transmission of the virus (along with fears that as with much of the PPE, there would be a surge in people stocking up, leaving the NHS and care homes short of equipment they need again).

Another fear was that wearing face masks would indirectly lead to people not carrying out other preventative measures, washing hands, social distancing, remaining in “bubbles” and so on.

However, in a slight change of tactic in the UK, instead of a national lock down the wearing of face masks is being seen as a way of getting people and most businesses back to some semblance of normality.

If wearing a face mask stops the wearer from transmitting the virus and if more and more people wear face masks, especially in situations where social distancing is difficult or impossible, then logically this should slow down the number of new cases.

the image shows a facemask with coronavirus in scrabble letters

Further Reading

News and information about corona virus is constantly changing. Hopefully, the details we have provided here on 'what is a face mask?' will still be the case when you read this!

We would say that along with keeping up to date with the regular news outlets, it is worth keeping an eye on your local news and local council’s news for information about coronavirus and face masks.

As the UK seems to be focusing on local areas rather than nationally (at the moment at least), the rules and regulations will vary regionally.

If you would like to read some information about the history of the face mask then why not take a look at one of our recent news stories here.

Get in Touch

Along with advice and guidance, here at Ability Superstore we sell a comprehensive range of PPE, including disposable and reusable face masks, you can have a browse of all the PPE products here.

Alternatively, you can contact us and we will be more than happy to help.

You can call us free on 0800 255 0498 or email us at