Types of face masks and respirators

With face masks set to be mandatory in all shops and supermarkets in England from Friday 24 July our health and safety experts explain the difference between a mask and respirator and the purpose of them to help stop the spread of Coronavirus.

Currently, COVID-19 is known to be transmitted in two main ways – respiratory droplets and contact. Respiratory droplets are generated when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Any person who is in close contact (within 1m) of someone who has respiratory symptoms (coughing, sneezing) is at risk of being exposed to potentially infectious respiratory droplets.

Droplets may also land on surfaces where the virus could remain viable and serve as a source of transmission.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) suggest there’s emerging evidence that the virus could also be transmitted via airborne particles.


So let’s consider what a mask or respirator do.


Designed for one-way protection, to capture bodily fluid leaving the wearer.


Non-valved respirators provide good two-way protection, by filtering both inflow and outflow of air.


Type of masks

Cloth Masks

Cloth masks or face coverings shouldn’t be used in a healthcare facility and one study showed that healthcare workers using cloth masks were at an increased risk of infection compared to those who wore medical masks.

Cloth masks prevent you from spreading the virus, protecting others from your coughing and sneezing but offer no protection to you against COVID-19.

Cloth masks should be regularly washed and dried to prevent the virus living on the surface.



Medical Mask

Medical masks are defined as surgical or procedure masks that are flat or pleated (some are shaped like cups) and are fixed to the head with straps. They are tested according to a set of standardised test methods that aim to balance high filtration, adequate breathability and optionally, fluid penetration resistance.

Wearing a medical mask is one of the prevention measures that can limit the spread of certain respiratory viral diseases, including COVID-19. However, the use of a mask alone isn’t enough to provide an adequate level of protection, and other measures should also be adopted.

  • Do not re-use single-use masks
  • Discard single-use masks after each use and dispose of them immediately upon removal
  • Continue rigorous hygiene routines including washing your hands more often



FFP2 & FFP3 Masks

FFP2 and FFP3 masks offer the best form of respiratory protection and can be disposable or reusable.

FFP2 paper mask

Normally paper masks are disposable. If reusing, then the masks need to be cleaned and the most effective way that most of us have access to is through the use of steam from boiling water for 10 minutes.

FFP3 – personal issue

This mask should be regarded as personal issue – so you shouldn’t share it with anyone else and should also be cleaned regularly. The advantage of these is that the filters last a lot longer and you are only cleaning the face piece and outer rubber pieces for hygiene purposes.




Face fit testing

If your employees are required to wear FFP2 or FFP3 masks, it’s a legal requirement to have a face fit testing if you work with:

  • The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations
  • The Control of Lead at Work Regulations
  • The Control of Asbestos Regulations

A face fit testing is a method for checking that the tight-fitting mask is fitted correctly to a person’s features and seals properly, increasing the wearers protection against airborne contaminants.



If you need Face Fit testing by a competent person, please get in touch. Our health and safety experts are Fit2Fit accredited and are able to provide Face Fit qualitative testing across the UK.

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