Get the Facts on Masks

Get the Facts on Masks details

Respirators, Surgical Masks, and Non-Medical Masks

Each type of mask is designed for a specific purpose. Respirators such as N95 will protect against exposure to airborne particles, including viruses. Surgical masks are a barrier to spreading droplets and spit. Non-medical masks help limit the spread of droplets and spit when you sneeze or cough.

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Know the differences

Link to video: How to Choose a MaskYoutube video from CCOHS

This table outlines the key differences between respirators (including N95), surgical masks, and non-medical masks

Respirators (including N95)
Surgical Masks
Non-Medical Masks
Evaluation, Testing, and Certification Respirators are evaluated, tested and certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Surgical masks are classified by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). Have not been evaluated or tested to recognized standards.
Purpose Respirators protect from exposure to airborne particles, including viruses. Surgical masks are a barrier to spreading droplets and spit. Non-medical masks help limit the spread of droplets and spit when you sneeze or cough.
Fit (Face Seal) Respirators are designed to seal tight to the face of the wearer. Are not designed to seal tight against the face. Are not designed to seal tight against the face.
Filtration Respirator filters that collect at least 95% of the challenge aerosol are given a 95 rating. Surgical masks do not effectively filter small particles from the air. Fabrics are not the same as materials used in certified masks and do not necessarily filter viruses.
Use Limitations Generally single use but repurposing may be appropriate in certain circumstances. Follow manufacturer’s instructions. Generally single use, but repurposing may be appropriate in certain circumstances. Follow manufacturer’s instructions. Can be difficult to breathe through fabric. Wash between uses.
Who Should Use and When Health care workers and others when providing direct care to a COVID-19 patient. Health care workers and others when providing direct care to a COVID-19 patient. And for individuals who test positive for COVID-19 or have COVID-19 symptoms. General public when you’re in a shared space (indoors or outdoors) with people from outside of your immediate household, or when advised by your local public health authority.
Note: All masks should be replaced or cleaned when they are wet, damaged, visibly dirty, contaminated (e.g., blood, respiratory fluids), or when breathing through it becomes difficult. If re-using is permitted, be sure to clean the mask between uses.

Good practices

  • Understand the proper procedure for putting on and removing your mask. Improperly removing your mask can expose you to coronavirus. Refer to credible information sources when researching masks such as the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • When making your own or using homemade masks, make sure they are well constructed and well fitted. Follow public health recommendations.
  • Make sure to wear your mask correctly. Improper mask wearing will not contain your respiratory droplets.
  • Do not wear a mask under your nose. You will contaminate the outside of the mask when you exhale.
  • Do not wear a mask that is too loose or too large.
  • Do not wear a mask that has open gaps. Your mask should fit snugly around your face.
  • Do not wear a mask inside-out.
  • Do not share worn non-medical masks with other people.
  • Do not re-use disposable masks.
  • Wash and fully dry cloth non-medical masks between uses.
  • Do not wear a damaged, soiled or wet mask. A compromised mask will not be effective at trapping droplets and particles.
    • A mask can become wet when you sweat, breathe, speak, shout, sing, sneeze, or cough, or from a runny nose.
    • A mask can become wet or soiled from airborne droplets from other people, touching a wet or dirty surface then touching the mask, steam from cooking, the weather, or spray and dust from work processes.
    • Wet contaminants such as other peoples’ bodily fluids can soak through your mask and expose you to disease.
  • Carry additional fresh masks with you, especially if the activity you are participating in it is likely to cause your mask to get wet or soiled.
  • Understand the limitations of your mask. Some masks degrade while in use and should be replaced with a fresh one after 3-5 hours of continuous use. Refer to manufacturer or public health recommendations.
  • Avoid using makeup when wearing a mask as it might transfer onto the mask and reduce its effectiveness.
  • If you are experiencing acne as a result of wearing a mask, make sure to clean your face at least twice a day, apply moisturizer, avoid wearing makeup, and replace your mask with a fresh one frequently to avoid trapped sweat and oil from rubbing on your face for extended time periods.
  • To prevent fogging of eyeglass, make sure the flexible strip is secured tightly over the bridge of your nose. Clean your lenses with anti-fog eyeglass spray cleaner.

Putting your mask on

Link to video: How to Safely Wear a Mask Youtube video from CCOHS

  1. Wash your hands using soap and water. If unavailable, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer (containing at least 60% alcohol).
  2. Remove your mask from its package.
  3. Inspect your mask. Do not use if it’s damaged, wet, dirty, or expired (if applicable).
  4. Hold your mask facing the correct direction.
    • Flat accordion-style masks are often white on the inside and coloured on the outside.
    • Shaped (stiff or cup) masks are often a single colour. Concave (curving in) is the inside and convex (curving out) is the outside. Do not fold them inside out.
    • Handmade cloth non-medical masks may be shaped or have a decorative pattern on the outside surface. Make sure you can easily identify the two sides and wear the mask on the correct side.
  5. Secure your mask according to its style.
    • For masks with elastics that go around the ears: hook one ear loop around each ear.
    • For masks with straps that go over the head: pull the upper elastic over the top of the head and the lower elastic around the back of your head.
    • For masks with ties or straps: Tie the upper strap around the top of your head, then tie the lower strap around the back of your head.
  6. Expand your mask fully so it completely covers your nose, mouth and chin, there should be no gaps between your face and the mask. You may need to pull the bottom edge fully under your chin.
  7. If your mask has a bendable nose strip, use both hands to press it to your nose to remove gaps.
  8. Wash your hands again using soap and water if available or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Correct ways of putting mask

Correct ways of putting mask

  1. Mask should fit tightly around your nose.
  2. Extend all the way under your chin.
  3. Ear loops or straps should be comfortably tight to keep your mask in place.
  4. The mask should not have gaps at the chin, cheeks, or nose. Your breath should pass through your mask and not escape through a gap.
Profile of person wearing a non-medical mask correctly

Incorrect ways to wear a mask

Person wearing a mask around their neck

Around your neck

Person wearing a mask on their forehead

On your forehead

Person wearing a mask under their nose

Under your nose

Person wearing a mask only on their nose

Only on your nose

Person wearing a mask on their chin

On your chin

Person with a mask hanging from one ear

Hanging from an ear

A mask hanging on an arm

On your arm

When wearing your mask

Link to video: How to Care for a Mask Youtube video from CCOHS

  1. Do not touch the outside surface of your mask. Assume that it’s contaminated. If you do touch your mask, wash or sanitize your hands right away.
  2. Continue to practice physical distancing and good hygiene. Wearing a mask alone will not prevent the spread of COVID-19, but it can help. Mask wearing is one part of the layered approach that is recommended by the Public Health Agency of Canada.
  3. Take steps to keep your mask clean and dry. Protect it with a plastic face shield if you are taking part in activities that are likely to get it wet or soiled.
  4. If your mask becomes damaged, wet, or dirty, replace it with a fresh one.

Taking your mask off

  1. Wash your hands using soap and water. If unavailable, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer (containing at least 60% alcohol).
  2. Do not touch the outside of your mask.
  3. Loosen your mask according to its style. Make sure to only handle the mask by its straps.
    • For masks with elastics that go around the ears: unhook both ear loops.
    • For masks with elastics that go over the head: pull the bottom elastic strap, then the top elastic strap over the head.
    • For masks with ties or straps: undo the bottom strap, then the upper strap.
  4. Lean forward and remove your mask.
  5. Throw away single-use masks in a lined garbage can. Place cloth non-medical masks in the laundry and wash before re-using.
  6. Wash your hands using soap and water if available or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  7. To avoid bacteria or mould growth, keep soiled or worn cloth/re-usable masks in a breathable container such as a paper or cloth bag until you are ready to clean them.