With so much constantly shifting and changing information floating around about COVID-19 it can be difficult to know what the latest guidelines are and what steps you should be taking to protect yourself and your loved ones from the virus.

While social distancing and washing your hands regularly remains the most effective defence against the virus, requiring members of the public to wear face masks or face coverings in certain circumstances has also become a big part of the government’s strategy to prevent the spread of the disease.  

So, should you be wearing a face covering? In what circumstances should you wear one? What type of face covering should you use?

Here’s our Greysnet guide to everything you need to know about using face masks and disposable gloves.

Face Masks

The Rules on Face Coverings

The rules on face coverings differ slightly depending on what part of the UK you are in.

In England it is compulsory to wear a face mask on public transport and it will be compulsory to wear a face mask in shops from Friday 25th July.

In Scotland, it is compulsory to wear face coverings on all public transport and in shops.

In Northern Ireland it is compulsory to wear a face mask on public transport but it is not currently compulsory in shops.

In Wales the public are being advised to wear face coverings where social distancing is not possible. The government is making their use mandatory on public transport from 27 July.

A number of exemptions apply to the rules on face coverings for example for children under 11, those with breathing difficulties and those who rely on lip reading for communication. It’s also important to know that the rules do not apply to shop workers.

Anyone failing to wear a mask could be refused travel on public transport and could face a fine for failing to wear one in shops.

What Type of Face Mask Should You Use?

You’ll probably have noticed people using all sorts of different face coverings from surgical masks (like the kind worn by doctors and nurses) to dust masks (like the kind worn by construction workers) to re-usable cloth face masks, to simple solutions like scarfs worn over the mouth and nose.

Disposable Surgical Mask
Re-usable Cloth Mask

It doesn’t matter what type of face covering you use, so don’t worry if you can’t get hold of a supply of surgical face masks. A homemade face covering can be just as effective if it is used and worn correctly. There are lots of online guides to making your own face coverings as well as plenty of online sellers offering cloth face masks for sale. You should expect to pay anywhere between £5-£15 for a good quality washable/re-useable mask.

Do masks protect against COVID-19?

It’s important to separate the two distinct functions of a face mask: the first is protecting others from being infected by the wearer, the second is protecting the wearer from infection from others.

COVID-19 is transmitted via droplets that fly out of the mouths or nose of infected people: most commonly when they cough or sneeze, but also when they speak.

These droplets range in size and can be directly inhaled or land on a surface where we pick them up on our hands before transferring them into our system by touching our face.

The current thinking is that face masks worn by an infected person can help to protect the people around them by stopping at least some of these particles, particularly larger ones from getting out.

Whether a face mask has the ability to filter out airborn particles and protect the wearer from infection is less clear. There is some evidence that masks have some effectiveness in this regard but it is minimal.

The reality is that you are less likely to get protection and you could even increase your risk of infection, if you don’t take care when putting on a face mask, while you’re wearing it, and when you take it off.

How To Wear a Face Mask

Your face mask should be worn over the mouth and nose and fit snugly but comfortably against the sides of your face. It should be held in place with ties or ear loops. Once in position the mask should allow you to breathe normally without restriction.

It’s important that you do not do certain things while wearing a mask that defeat the purpose of wearing it. Examples include pulling the mask under your chin for a breather, to speak to someone, or to make a phone call or touching the mask while wearing it.

Through these actions, you can transfer the virus directly from your hands to your face increasing your risk of being infected.

The World Health Organisation has published some dos and don’ts for wearing face masks, summarised here:

Disposable Gloves

While disposable gloves are an important protective measure for health care workers like doctors and nurses, to date gloves have not been recommended as a precautionary measure against COVID-19 for the average citizen in the UK.  That’s largely because of the evidence we have about how the disease is transmitted.

Coronavirus is not absorbed through the skin, so you can’t contract COVID-19 through touch alone. To acquire coronavirus through touch, you would have to touch a contaminated surface and then touch your face. Which you can do whether you are wearing gloves or not.

Just like face masks, gloves are only effective if they are worn and removed in the proper way. If you’re not careful, you can contaminate your hands when you put on or take off gloves. So follow these steps when removing gloves to reduce the risk of contaminating your hands in the process and always wash your hands after removing your gloves, or if that’s not possible use a hand sanitizer.

The general consensus from all the experts is that while wearing face coverings and gloves can provide some protection to the average person against the Coronavirus this depends entirely on using them correctly. Proper social distancing and washing your hands regularly remain your best line of defence.

Written by Maximilian de Courten, Professor in Global Public Health, Victoria University; Barbora de Courten, Professor and Specialist Physcian, Monash University, and Vasso Apostolopoulos, Pro Vice-Chancellor, Research Partnerships, Victoria University. It is republished from The Conversation with additional material from Greysnet.