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Face masks: Your questions answered by doctors


Pregnant woman walking in the city in a sunny day protecting herself with a cloth face mask iduring Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic

We put some common questions to two Australian doctors to get their advice on what's what when choosing and wearing a face mask.

Face masks. If you've woken you've woken up in Melbourne or the Mitchell Shire today, wearing one is mandatory from 11.59pm. In NSW, the government recommends the use of masks or face coverings when you can't socially distance yourself, and the rules and advice for mask wearing in Australia are being updated regularly.

While the advice is simple, the sheer range of face mask options is far from it. Should you choose disposable surgical masks? Can you use a reusable mask? What do you look for and how much can you expect to pay? Or, can you just whack a bandana or scarf around your face and be done with it?

We put some of these questions to two experienced Australian doctors working on the frontlines of the pandemic to get their professional medical advice on what's what when it comes to choosing and wearing a face mask.

Our experts

Dr Vyom Sharma

Dr Vyom Sharma is a Melbourne-based GP working on the frontline of Victoria's coronavirus crisis.

Vyom has appeared quite regularly in the media, including on ABC's Q&A and Channel 9's TODAY Show, discussing the Australian response to the pandemic. He also co-hosts the Coronavirus Q&A regularly on ABC News.

Dr Brad McKay

Dr Brad McKay is a Sydney-based GP and health communicator.

Brad is also on the editorial board of the medical magazine The Medical Republic and appears regularly on Australian TV and radio.

What kind of face mask should I buy (as someone who is not a medical professional)?

Dr Sharma:

For now, whatever you can get your hands on. So if that means a disposable surgical mask or even just a DIY sock mask (there are some creative people on social media!), then so be it.

But you should aim to eventually make or buy a reusable cloth mask. It is the most economical, practical and sustainable option there is, while still being effective.

Dr McKay:

Any face covering is better than nothing. You can buy anything from a single layer to 12-layer masks, but single layers aren't very protective and 12 layers are difficult to suck air through.

Reusable masks with 3 layers hit the Goldilocks zone, providing adequate protection while still allowing you to easily breathe.

What should I look for in a reusable mask?

Dr Sharma:

The gold standard is having 3 layers of fabric, where the outer layer is water repellent (e.g. polyester), the inner layer is absorbent (e.g. cotton), and the middle layer is a blend of two fabrics. But even just one type of fabric with three layers works.

Dr McKay:

A 3-layered mask with a a water-resistant outer layer (to repel potentially infective droplets and keep them on the surface of the mask), a filter in the middle (to catch any moisture that gets through the outer layer) and an absorbent inner layer (to absorb moisture from your own breath).

Water-resistant fabric like polyester or polypropylene can be used as the outer layer. Fabric blends like cotton-polyester or polypropylene can be used for the middle layer. Cotton can be used as the absorbent fabric of the inner layer.

What about masks with valves?

Dr Sharma:

I would avoid valves. They defeat half the purpose of masks, which is to stop you from spreading the virus in case you have it.

Dr McKay:

Masks with valves are useful when you're working around toxic fumes, but are terrible during a pandemic. One-way valve masks are just plain selfish. They will protect you from others because the valve shuts off when you breathe inwards, but will not protect others from you because the valve opens wide when you breathe outwards.

How often should I clean a reusable mask?

Dr Sharma:

Wash your mask at the end of the day, before you use it next.

Dr Mckay:

It's best practice to wash reusable masks after every use. It's a good idea to have a few masks and rotate through them.

What's the best way to clean a reusable mask?

Dr Sharma:

Most can go straight into the washing machine with some detergent! It can join the day's laundry.

Dr Mckay:

The easiest way to clean a reusable mask is to chuck it in the washing machine – provided that it's machine-wash friendly.

Washing by hand is another option, but could unintentionally expose you to splashes of viral particles. You'd need to wear a mask while you wash your mask.

If you don't have the ability to wash your mask after every use, the next best option is to leave it in a warm, dry area of the house, where you're not going to touch it. Coronavirus doesn't last long on material and will degrade over a few days. Use another mask and rotate through them.

What if I'm using a disposable mask? How long can I wear it before replacing it?

Dr Sharma:

They are designed to be used once, for 4 hours maximum, and then thrown away. This is why medical-grade disposable masks – despite having superior filtration to cloth – aren't practical for daily use.

Dr McKay:

Disposable masks are meant to be for single-use, and you can usually wear them for up to 4 hours at a time. Once disposable masks become damp from your breath or the environment, they stop providing protection.

But, if you only have a small supply of disposable masks and nothing else, then it's reasonable to rotate through them.

Can I make my own mask? I've seen loads of YouTube videos showing how to make masks out of socks/T-shirts/tea towels. Is this a good idea?

Dr Sharma:

Some DIY designs are better than others, and anything is better than nothing. That said, the problem isn't so much the material, it's the lack of multiple layers and the origami required to put some of the designs on.

While we're all getting used to face coverings, they're not a bad idea to try out. But sooner or later you'll want something easy, practical and purpose-built.

Dr McKay:

A single layer of fabric isn't the best option, but these materials will be better than using nothing. If you're going to use a sock, make sure it's brand new, or at least a clean one.

Can I just wrap a scarf or bandana around my face?

Dr Sharma:

For now, yes! And there are a bunch of nifty ways to do this so they won't slip off. And remember, three layers are best, so if you can make that work for the time being, then great.

Dr McKay:

If the material is tightly woven and you're folding it into a few layers, this will likely provide some protection. But if your scarf is made of wool or crocheted loosely by your nanna, it's probably not going to do much.

What are some of the biggest mistakes you've seen people make while wearing masks?

Dr McKay:

If you're wearing a surgical mask, make sure the coloured side is facing outwards. This is generally the water-resistant layer and you can see a shiny coating on the material. The white absorbent layer goes nearest your mouth.

If there is a wire along one side of the mask, this goes on top. Mould the wire over the bridge of your nose. So many people are wearing their masks upside-down with the wire under their chin, which doesn't create a snug fit.

Dr Sharma:

The best I saw was a dude with a hole cut out for a cigarette he was smoking. Pulitzer moment – wish I had a camera on me.

I see a lot of people touch the outside of their mask – it's a classic error, but nobody's perfect.

With time, we'll get better. And soon enough, things will get better.

Ready to buy? Head to our face mask buying guide now

We update our guide daily based on stock levels.

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