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24 Jul 2020

Coronavirus: where and when do you need a face covering?

Find out what the latest advice is on face masks and the key information you need to know about using one

Last updated: 15 July 2021

Face covering rules are changing, but you still need to carry one with you, as you might be required to wear one in certain situations.

We've rounded up the latest advice on face coverings below. Follow the links below to jump to a certain section:

See our face mask reviews for the full results and where to buy our top-rated masks.

Face covering buying and making guide - we explain where you can buy reusable cloth masks, what type to look for, and how to make your own

What's the current UK advice about face masks and coverings?

  • England - face coverings are no longer legally required in England from 19 July, but transport and healthcare providers, and other businesses may require them as a condition of entry or travel.
  • Scotland- face coverings will still be required in most enclosed public spaces for the time-being.
  • Northern Ireland - face coverings are longer required in classrooms and places of worship from 26 July, but are still required in other enclosed public spaces.
  • Wales - face coverings will continue to be mandatory on public transport, and in most enclosed public spaces, even if the country moves to alert level zero on 7 August.

Across the UK, ride-sharing company Uber has made it mandatory for both passengers and drivers to wear masks while taking trips.

Who is exempt from wearing a face mask?

There are some exemptions to who should wear a face covering, including young children and people with breathing difficulties.

In situations where face coverings are mandatory, legitimate reasons not to wear one include:

  • if you are not able to put on, wear or remove a face covering because of a physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability, or for whom it would cause severe distress or difficulty
  • if you are travelling with or providing assistance to someone who relies on lip reading to communicate
  • if you need to remove the face covering to eat, drink, or take medication
  • if a police officer or other official asks you to remove the mask
  • if you need to remove a mask or not wear one in an emergency situation to avoid harm or injury
  • retail staff are exempt from wearing a face covering

Transport workers who are behind a protective screen are specifically exempt in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

In England, the mandatory rules on public transport and in shops do not apply to staff, though many may choose to wear a face covering where social distancing isn't possible.

You can download a face mask exemption card on the government website.

What age children are exempt?

Children under a certain age are also exempt:

  • Northern Ireland - children under 13 don't have to wear face coverings and school transport is exempt
  • England and Wales - children under 11 are exempt
  • Scotland - children under five are exempt

Find out more about the Coronavirus safety measures in shops

What do the health organisations say about face masks?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) originally said that healthy people only needed to wear a mask if they were taking care of a person with COVID-19, and cautioned about the risks of mask-wearing instilling a false sense of security in the wearer and leading to them becoming lax about crucial measures such as social distancing and handwashing.

It also said that 'non-medical or cloth masks could increase potential for COVID-19 to infect a person if the mask is contaminated by dirty hands and touched often, or kept on other parts of the face or head and then placed back over the mouth and nose.'

But it has nowupdated its advice on face masks, saying that governments should encourage the general public to wear masks in situations where social distancing isn't possible, such as on public transport and in shops.

It advises a home-made three-layer mask for most people, and that the over-60's consider wearing 'medical' masks in areas with high rates of community transmission.

The new advice remains cautious, however, advising local policy makers to take into account contextual factors like the risk of infection, vulnerability of the population, availability of masks, and resources required when recommending face masks or making them mandatory.

It also clarifies that 'medical' masks means the basic surgical-type disposable ones, not higher-grade respirators such as N95 masks.

The European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) suggests that homemade masks may be useful to help prevent the spread of coronavirus by asymptomatic people in confined spaces, but acknowledges the evidence for this is currently weak.

All are clear that higher-grade medical respirator masks should be reserved for frontline health workers, where they are needed most.

Find out more about hand hygiene, soap and sanitiser gel

How many layers should a mask have?

The WHO has advised that people ideally use a three-layer mask, as this is thought to be more effective than a single or double layer. UK government advice recommends at least two layers, and the Welsh government specifically recommends three.

Try to go for three layers, but at least two - our face mask tests showed a clear difference between single-layer face coverings and those with a double or triple layer. Even better if your multiple layers are made from different fabrics.

Single-layer stretchy face masks were the least effective at filtration. They were better than nothing at all, but in some cases only marginally.

Do face coverings affect your health?

Some claims doing the rounds on social media about face masks limiting your intake of oxygen or raising your CO2 to dangerous levels have been debunked by scientists.

While it is important to make sure you can breathe properly while wearing a face covering, when worn correctly they do not cause CO2 intoxication nor oxygen deficiency.

As for inhaling more CO2, carbon dioxide particles are much too small to be trapped by any mask that is breathable, so you won't be breathing in the same air you breathe out into the mask.

On both points, medics have highlighted the fact that surgeons and healthcare workers wear much heavier-duty PPE for longer periods of time and do not experience the above issues as a result of wearing a mask.

Does wearing a face mask protect you from catching coronavirus?

There has been confusion about who a face mask is intended to protect: the wearer, or those around them.

There are two basic types of mask:

  • Standard medical / surgical masks aren't considered to provide comprehensive protection against coronavirus, as there are gaps round the edges where smaller airborne particles can still get in.
  • Higher-grade medical respirator masks (such as the N95 or FFP2 or FFP3 types) provide a higher level of protection, but they aren't appropriate for use by the general public as they require specialist fitting to be effective, and are only considered necessary for health workers in high-risk frontline settings such as treating coronavirus patients in hospital.

The evidence is that wearing a face covering similar to a surgical mask is more about protecting others and preventing the spread of the disease, rather than protecting yourself - though ultimately the more people wear them the more we are all protected in theory.

This is also important to prevent asymptomatic people - who may be unaware that they have COVID-19 - from spreading the virus.

Dr Chris Hui, Clinical Assistant Professor at Hong Kong University and Honorary Consultant in Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine at the Royal Free Hospital London says that 'much of the effectiveness with wearing a face mask is to stop the outward spread of droplets from the airways. This protects others from a sneeze or cough when we are out in the community'.

The problem with disposable face masks

One of the big concerns around advocating the use of face masks is that it could significantly worsen shortages of protective equipment for NHS and other frontline workers, whose need is far greater.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has already said that it would be nearly impossible for the government to supply face masks to the public, and the medical-grade masks that do exist should be kept for health workers on the frontline.

Surgical masks are single-use products that should be replaced as soon as they are damp or after one use - another reason why they are unlikely to be a practical solution for sustained daily use. At around 60p per mask, the cost of using several per day could really add up. They are also non-recyclable.

You should also be wary of high-grade or surgical masks for sale on online marketplaces, as they are likely to be sold at inflated prices, and could even be fake.

Dust masks and anti-pollution masks

Dust masks for DIY and building work, and commuter-style anti-pollution masks, are another option some people have turned to, but they may not be suitable if they feature an exhalation valve.

This is because the valve, which is designed to make it easier to breathe, lets you exhale unfiltered air out, so this type of mask isn't suitable for protecting others in the community.

They are also not washable so you have the same problem of needing a steady supply, and the cost and environmental implications of this.

What about face shields?

Face shields or face visors are thought to provide a limited amount of protection, but they should not be seen as an alternative to masks.

A study in Japan found that these clear shields are ineffective at trapping aerosols, and therefore aren't very useful in reducing virus transmission.

Watch out forcounterfeit coronavirus medicinesbeing sold online, and if you've seen examples of inflated prices online, report price-gouging to Which? to let us know.

How to make a face mask and use it safely

If you do decide to use a face covering, it's vitally important to follow the guidance on how to do this properly, otherwise you could end up increasing your risk of infection.

The WHO has helpful instructions on how to use a face mask properly, these include:

  • Wash your hands before putting on the mask
  • Make sure the mask covers your mouth and nose, and fits snugly without gaps
  • Avoid touching the mask while using it
  • To remove the mask, remove it from behind (don't touch the front), dispose of it immediately (if it's a single use mask) and wash your hands afterwards

Homemade cloth masks can be reused, but should be washed thoroughly after every use in a soap solution.

How to make your own face covering

There are numerous tutorials online for making your own face mask.

If you have the materials and wish to sew one, there are patterns to follow - watch our video above for an example. If you don't, it's also possible to fashion a mask without having to sew anything.

The UK government has instructions for different ways to make a mask at home, including one that doesn't require any sewing. The Welsh government has published guidance onhow to make a three layer face mask.

Some people have recommended adding a fresh paper towel or coffee filter between the mask layers each time that you wear it, for added filtration.

Bear in mind the evidence for homemade masks is thin on the ground, and they are not recommended for use in clinical settings.

You shouldn't consider them a protective measure for yourself - maintaining strict social distancing and other hygiene precautions are still your best personal protective measures against coronavirus.

For more advice on buying or making a face covering, see our full face mask guide.

Read the latest coronavirus news and advice from Which?.

This story was originally published on 29 April 2020, but has been regularly updated since to reflect the changing guidance on face coverings in the UK.