In normal times, you would think that a mask is one type of face covering but in covid-19 times the UK government defines a face covering as “something which safely covers the nose and mouth”. This can be a product specifically designed for this purpose (single or multiple use) or just a piece of cloth such as a scarf, bandana or religious garment. It must, however, fit securely around the side of one’s face. They are mainly intended to protect others from catching the virus from the wearer.
Face coverings are NOT items of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) which are designed for specific uses such as in hospitals or construction sites and are manufactured to European Union standards.
The quality of commercial face coverings can vary widely. A recent Which? Magazine study of masks available from major retailers scored between 35% and 81% in their tests. Concerned about poor quality, in June the EU rushed out guidelines on the minimum requirements for face coverings but it is clear that these guidelines are not always followed.
Masks for medical use fall into two categories, surgical masks and respirators. They are designed for use in specific medical settings (as described in government documents). Before they can be sold, they need to be tested by an approved, independent lab and receive the appropriate approvals. They can then use the EU “CE” mark of adherence to standards. Medical masks include 3 ply Type II Masks and Type IIR Fluid resistant surgical masks (FRSM). These are tested to EN14683 standards, the latest being 2019. Then there are the respirator type of masks, sometimes called filtering face pieces of half masks. They are graded FFP1, FFP2 and FFP3 in Europe, FFP1 being the lowest grade and FFP3 the highest. In the Americas they care called N95 and N99 respirator masks, and the Chinese call the KN95 masks.
Surgical masks are intended to protect others from being infected by the wearer. They are tested in the direction of exhalation and meet European Standards. The categories within the EU are these; a type II mask presents a more effective barrier (having a “bacterial filtration efficiency” of 98%) than a type I mask (95%). A type IIR mask additionally meets standards of splash resistance.
Respirators are designed to protect the wearer from infection by others. They filter incoming bacteria. Unlike the surgical masks, they have to be fitted carefully to prevent inhalation through gaps “around the side” of the respirator.