Wearing face masks: Q & A
Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Disclaimer: Surgical masks and N95 respirators are critical supplies and must continue to be reserved for healthcare workers and other medical first responders, as recommended by CDC guidance.

Q. What is the advice regarding face mask use?

The CDC is recommending mask use when going out in public, especially on public transport, in supermarkets, hairdressers and anywhere else where adequate social distancing is difficult.

The agency stressed that this advice applies to cloth masks — including homemade masks — that cover the nose and mouth, not hospital-grade surgical masks and microparticle-filtering N95 masks.

Experts say that wearing a cloth mask will not protect you from getting sick as it does not have the capabilities to prevent you from inhaling microscopic virus particles, but they can help prevent the spread of the disease by those with the virus.

The benefit of wearing a mask is similar to the benefit of coughing or sneezing into your elbow. This is to protect people around you if you are infected but do not have symptoms.

A cloth face covering is not intended to protect the wearer, but it may prevent the spread of virus from the wearer to others. This would be especially important if someone is infected but does not have symptoms.

Q. How are cloth face coverings different from other types of masks?

Cloth face coverings are not the same as the medical facemasks, surgical masks, or respirators (such as N95 respirators) worn by healthcare personnel, first responders, and workers in other industries. These masks and respirators are personal protective equipment (PPE).

Medical PPE should be used by healthcare personnel and first responders for their protection. Healthcare personnel and first responders should not wear cloth face coverings instead of PPE when respirators or facemasks are indicated.

Q. Where should I wear one?

A cloth face covering should be worn whenever people are in a community setting, especially in situations where you may be near people, including grocery stores, public transport and pharmacies.

Q. Do I still have to stay 2 metres away (socially distanced) from other people if I’m wearing a mask?

Yes. Wearing cloth face coverings is an additional public health measure people should take to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

CDC still recommend that you stay at least 6 feet away from other people, engage in frequent hand cleaning and other everyday preventive actions. These face coverings are not a substitute for social distancing or other preventative measures.

Q. What if I have no symptoms?

We now know from recent studies that a significant portion of individuals with coronavirus lack symptoms ( are “asymptomatic”) and that even those who eventually develop symptoms (“pre-symptomatic”) can transmit the virus to others before showing symptoms, according to the advisory published by the CDC.

This means that the virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity — for example, speaking, coughing, or sneezing — even if those people are not showing symptoms at the time.

In light of this new evidence, CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain, as aforementioned.

Q. Is there anyone who should not wear face masks?

Cloth face coverings should not be placed on young children under the age of 2, anyone who has trouble breathing, or is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.

The cloth face coverings recommended are not surgical masks or N-95 respirators. Those are critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for healthcare workers and other medical first responders, as recommended by current CDC guidance.


N95 respirators and surgical masks (face masks) are examples of personal protective equipment (PPE) that are used to protect the wearer from airborne particles and from liquid contaminating the face.

Q. What are N95 Respirators?

An N95 respirator is a respiratory protective device designed to achieve a very close facial fit and very efficient filtration of airborne particles. Note that the edges of the respirator are designed to form a seal around the nose and mouth. Surgical N95 Respirators are commonly used in healthcare settings.

The 'N95' designation means that when subjected to careful testing, the respirator blocks at least 95 percent of very small (0.3 micron) test particles. If properly fitted, the filtration capabilities of N95 respirators exceed those of face masks. However, even a properly fitted N95 respirator does not completely eliminate the risk of illness or death.

It is important to recognize that the best way to prevent airborne transmission is to use a combination of protective interventions, not just PPE alone.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not recommend that the general public wear N95 respirators to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including coronavirus. These are critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for health care workers and other medical first responders, as recommended by current CDC guidance.

Q. What are Surgical Masks (Face Masks)?

A surgical mask is a loose-fitting, disposable device that creates a physical barrier between the mouth and nose of the wearer and potential contaminants in the immediate environment.

Surgical masks are not to be shared and may be labeled as surgical, isolation, dental, or medical procedure masks. They may come with or without a face shield. These are often referred to as face masks, although not all face masks are regulated as surgical masks.

Surgical masks are made in different thicknesses and with different ability to protect you from contact with liquids. These properties may also affect how easily you can breathe through the face mask and how well the surgical mask protects you.

If worn properly, a surgical mask is meant to help block large-particle droplets, splashes, sprays, or splatter that may contain germs (viruses and bacteria), keeping it from reaching your mouth and nose. Surgical masks may also help reduce exposure of your saliva and respiratory secretions to others.

While a surgical mask may be effective in blocking splashes and large-particle droplets, a face mask, by design, does not filter or block very small particles in the air that may be transmitted by coughs, sneezes, or certain medical procedures. Surgical masks also do not provide complete protection from germs and other contaminants because of the loose fit between the surface of the face mask and your face.

Surgical masks are not intended to be used more than once. If your mask is damaged or soiled, or if breathing through the mask becomes difficult, you should remove the face mask, discard it safely, and replace it with a new one. To safely discard your mask, place it in a plastic bag and put it in the bin. Wash your hands after handling the used mask.


People with chronic respiratory, cardiac, or other medical conditions that make breathing difficult should check with their health care provider before using an N95 respirator because the N95 respirator can make it more difficult for the wearer to breathe.

Some models have exhalation valves that can make breathing out easier and help reduce heat build-up. Note that N95 respirators with exhalation valves should not be used when sterile conditions are needed.

All FDA-cleared N95 respirators are labelled as "single-use," disposable devices. If your respirator is damaged or soiled, or if breathing becomes difficult, you should remove the respirator, discard it properly, and replace it with a new one. To safely discard your N95 respirator, place it in a plastic bag and put it in the bin. Wash your hands after handling the used respirator.

N95 respirators are not designed for children or people with facial hair. Because a proper fit cannot be achieved on children and people with facial hair, the N95 respirator may not provide full protection.


Most N95 respirators are manufactured for use in construction and other industrial type jobs that expose workers to dust and small particles.

However, some N95 respirators are intended for use in a health care setting. Specifically, single-use, disposable respiratory protective devices used and worn by health care personnel during procedures to protect both the patient and health care personnel from the transfer of microorganisms, body fluids, and particulate material. These surgical N95 respirators are class II devices regulated by the FDA, under 21 CFR 878.4040, and CDC NIOSH under 42 CFR Part 84.


N95 masks, which are worn by medical professionals who come into close contact with those with COVID-19, are actually respirators. They form a tight seal over the nose and mouth and filter all air coming in or out.

Cloth masks, on the other hand, are much more similar to surgical masks, which are not airtight and are primarily intended to prevent healthcare workers from spreading germs to patients.

Cloth masks protect the environment from the wearer, and respirator N95 masks protect the wearer from the environment.


When using a cloth face covering, make sure:

  • The mouth and nose are fully covered
  • The covering fits snugly against the sides of the face so there are no gaps
  • You do not have any difficulty breathing while wearing the cloth face covering
  • The cloth face covering can be tied or otherwise secured to prevent slipping
  • Avoid touching your face as much as possible
  • Keep the covering clean
  • Clean hands with soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitizer immediately, before putting on, after touching or adjusting, and after removing the cloth face covering
  • Don’t share it with anyone else unless it’s washed and dried first.
  • You should be the only person handling your covering.
  • Laundry instructions will depend on the cloth used to make the face covering. In general, cloth face coverings should be washed regularly (e.g., daily and whenever soiled) using water and a mild detergent, dried completely in a hot dryer, and stored in a clean container or bag
  • A washing machine should suffice in properly washing a face covering

Information from Center for Disease Control (CDC)