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29 October 2020

Disposable face mask buying guide

Find out about the pros and cons of disposable face masks, the different types and whether a reusable or disposable face mask is best for you
Anna Studman

Disposable surgical-style face masks are now readily available to buy, including in supermarkets, pharmacies and convenience stores.

Some people find them more lightweight and convenient than reusable cloth masks. But as single-use product, they pose a significant threat to the environment and the costs can really add up over time.

They are usually made of several layers of a type of polypropylene and either flat or pleated, often with a built-in nose wire. They tend to have simple elastic straps that go around the ears or head. 

These disposable masks can filter large droplets produced by someone coughing or talking loudly near you, but are less able to filter the tiny aerosol particles that also potentially carry the virus, as they don't fit tightly to the face. So they aren’t generally considered by experts to protect against COVID-19.

However, like reusable face coverings, they do help to capture droplets exhaled by you when coughing, sneezing or talking, helping to limit the spread of viral particles.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says this type of mask should be worn if you're sick with suspected COVID-19 to protect those around you (although, if this is the case you should also be self-isolating), or considered by people over the age of 60 in areas where community transmission is high.

UK government advice encourages the use of reusable fabric face coverings for general use. Our recent tests show that these can provide highly effective filtration too, so check our face mask reviews for the best options.

For more advice on reusable face covering types, see how to buy the best reusable face mask.

Disposable vs reusable face masks

Filtration

Single-use disposable surgical-style masks work to the same basic principles as a homemade version. They provide basic protection against large droplets and splashes which are considered to be a key route of transmission, but not smaller particles. 

Their main purpose is to protect others from your exhalations if you're asymptomatic, but they do also provide rudimentary protection.

Disposable surgical masks must conform to certain minimum filtration standards, which reusable versions do not (although a voluntary standard is in place), so there's a bit more certainty about what you're getting when buying a disposable version.

But our face mask tests uncovered reusable face masks that filter as much as disposable ones – see which reusable face coverings are best for filtration. 

Environmental cost

Environmental groups have raised concerns about the impact that single-use face masks, which are made of plastic, is having on the environment.

They aren't currently recyclable via normal routes. There are some companies claiming to make recyclable face masks, but we found this is only possible via specialist recycling services. You should never put disposable masks in the recycling bin.

According to University College London’s Plastic Waste Innovation Hub, if just half of the UK’s population used one disposable mask per day for a year, that adds up to around 12 billion masks a year, creating more than 30,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste.

Not disposing of them correctly also creates a potential hazardous waste problem, so if you do wear them, make sure you put them securely into a bin once worn.

Ongoing costs

Because they must be disposed of after each use, surgical masks aren’t a very practical or economical solution for sustained daily use. At around 45p per mask if you buy in bulk, the cost of using just one per day over the course of a year would be £164.

Some people reuse their disposable masks, but this is not advisable as it could increase your risk of catching COVID-19.

Our Best Buy reusable face coverings cost £5 per covering, so they would be cheaper overall than most disposables after two weeks' use.

We know that some cheap, disposable face masks can be prone to breaking before or during a single use – ear straps breaking off are a common complaint. Exercise caution particularly when buying these on online, as we've uncovered some issues on online marketplaces.

Disposable face mask types explained

Surgical/medical masks

Surgical or medical face masks are single-use disposable products, usually sold in boxes of 50 or more, but they can also be found in smaller packs these days in high street stores and pharmacies. 

They tend to be blue, rectangular and pleated, with elastic ear straps and a nose wire. 

They come in three different levels of filtration: 

  • Type I bacteria filtering > 95%, blocks exhalation of larger respiratory droplets 
  • Type II bacteria filtering > 98%, blocks exhalation of larger respiratory droplets 
  • Type IIR bacteria filtering > 98%, blocks exhalation of larger respiratory droplets and is splash resistant

Respirator masks

Respirator masks, including FFP2, FFP3 and N95 masks (picture above) are closer-fitting masks designed to protect the wearer against the inhalation of both larger droplets and fine aerosol particles.

These need to be properly fit-tested to be effective, are more expensive and aren't really necessary for everyday use by the public. 

They are designed for medical workers working in areas with a higher risk of infection, such as those in close contact with people who have highly infectious illnesses.

Valved/dust masks

Hardware stores sell these masks, meant for DIY and construction jobs to protect you from dust and other potentially harmful particles. 

The problem with these from a public health perspective is that the valve (which makes it more comfortable to breathe) filters what you breathe in, but not what you breathe out – defeating the purpose of protecting others. 

This means they aren't a suitable face covering for limiting the spread of the virus.

Where can you buy disposable face masks?

Disposable masks are now widely available, with most pharmacies, supermarkets, newsagents and corner shops stocking them, along with reusable masks.

At the time of writing, they were available at Boots, LloydsPharmacy, Co-op Pharmacy, and Superdrug, as well as Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury's and Tesco to name just a few.

You're also likely to see disposable masks at places like WH Smiths and other newsagents and convenience stores, especially in transport hubs due to mask wearing requirements on public transport.

How much do disposable face masks cost?

It depends on the pack size, as this ranges significantly from packs of four to 200, at pharmacies and in the thousands on online marketplaces.

Broadly, price per mask works out at about 35p in the largest bulk packs (some retailers are selling 300-piece bundles). You'll pay more for a smaller pack - around 80p per mask.

At the supermarkets, packs of between four and 10 will cost you about £2 to £3. 

Should you buy disposable gloves?

Often sold side by side with surgical masks, these are an unnecessary extra for most people.

While disposable surgical gloves play an important part in clinical or sometimes hospitality settings, they're not generally considered by experts to be needed for the general public.

Gloves are just as likely to become contaminated when out and about, so instead of throwing away a pair of gloves each time you go out, washing your hands or using sanitiser are better options.

Wearing gloves may also give the false impression of hand hygiene, while forgetting to change your gloves would be just as bad as forgetting to wash your hands. 

The exception might be if you have sore or broken skin on your hands, in which case they can be a helpful barrier where hand sanitiser might aggravate the condition. 

For more tips on looking after your hand health, see our guide to hand hygiene and the best hand creams.

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