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7 July 2021

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 masks have become a common sight during the pandemic.

Some people find them more lightweight and convenient than reusable cloth masks and they are usually required for medical appointments. 

They have also been recommended for people who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, as they must conform to specific filtration standards.

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

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 vulnerable people and people over the age of 60 in areas where community transmission is high.

It may be that in certain circumstances, you decide to opt for a disposable. Our guide below explains the pros and cons and different types to help you decide.

It's worth bearing in mind that, as a single-use plastic product, disposable masks pose a significant threat to the environment (though there are some places you can now recycle them) and the costs of buying them regularly can add up over time.

For now, UK government advice still encourages the use of reusable fabric face coverings for general use. Our 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 face mask types explained

Surgical/medical masks

These disposable masks can filter large droplets produced by someone coughing or talking loudly near you, and have a moisture repellent outer layer, but they are less able to filter the tiny aerosol particles that also potentially carry the virus, as they don't fit tightly to the face. 

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.

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

FFP respirator masks

Respirator masks, called 'filtering face piece' or FFP masks, are closer-fitting masks designed to protect the wearer against the inhalation of both larger droplets and fine aerosol particles. They are roughly equivalent to the N95 masks in the US.

These need to be properly fit to the face to be effective, and are more expensive than blue surgical masks. Plus, they tend to be single use, so aren't very eco friendly. It's also worth noting this is PPE that is needed by frontline workers. 

However, some countries like France and Germany are now mandating that FFP2 masks be used on public transport and in shops. 

It might be worth considering one if you're in an area with high transmission and are at greater risk of catching coronavirus. 

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.

Semi-reusable masks

These are masks that are made from similar materials to disposable masks, but can be worn and washed a set number of times before you need to replace them. We've tested a couple of these and found that while some - like the Airpop Pocket - can filter as well as or better than disposable masks, others aren't quite up to the job. 

A good one can be a smart choice for higher-risk situations like commuting or travelling, while not creating as much waste as a single-use product. We checked and some can also be recycled via disposable mask recycling drop-boxes

See our face mask reviews for the lowdown on the best semi-reusable masks.

Disposable vs reusable face masks

Filtration

Single-use disposable surgical-style masks (the pleated blue ones) 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.

Higher-grade respirators, like FFP2 masks, are designed to also filter finer aerosols coming in - so they offer a higher level of protection.

All disposable surgical masks must conform to certain minimum filtration standards, which reusable versions do not (although a voluntary minimum performance agreement 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 some 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 household recycling bin.

You can now recycle disposable masks at some Wilko stores in dedicated bins (part of a three month trial from 1 April 2021), where they are then taken by a recycling company and repurposed for building materials.

Still, there's cause for concern. 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 and can harm wildlife, so if you do wear them, make sure you put them securely into a bin once worn, or safely recycled via specialist schemes.

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 for a basic surgical mask if you buy in bulk, the cost of using just one per day over the course of a year would be £164.

For FFP masks, this is even higher as they cost from about £2 - £4 per mask.

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

Our cheapest Best Buy reusable face coverings cost £1.67 per covering, so they would be cheaper overall than most disposables after a less than a week's 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.

Where can you buy disposable face masks?

Blue surgical 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.

FFP masks might be more difficult to find, and are currently available at LloydsPharmacy or on Amazon - but make sure when buying online that you check the product conforms to EN149:2001 and has a CE mark.

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.

For blue surgical masks, 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. 

FFP masks are a little harder to find at the moment, but a pack of 10 at Lloyd's Pharmacy is £30.

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.