Masks: what is the difference between cloth and FFP2?

As new variants of the coronavirus spread across Europe, authorities are adjusting their advice on the types of masks to wear.

In France they have warned that handmade cloth masks may not be protective enough. The German state of Bavaria now requires hospital-grade FFP2 masks on public transport and in shops, with Austria to follow on January 25.

Euronews has interviewed Dr. Simon Kolstoe, a professor at the University of Portsmouth, about the difference between this garment with which, forcibly, we have become familiar.

What do FFP2 masks do that others don’t?

Kolstoe says it’s important to note that there are two main types of masks on the market. On the one hand, there are masks designed to prevent you from exhaling on other people. Think cloth masks or blue and white surgical masks. If the user coughs or sneezes, most of the expelled droplets will be trapped in the mask instead of falling on nearby people. But they do not effectively prevent the user from inhaling much smaller airborne virus particles.

On the other hand, some masks also serve as personal protective equipment – they are designed to protect the wearer from inhaling much smaller viral particles. These are the FFP masks: filtering face pieces.

In Europe, FFP2 masks filter at least 94% of aerosols. They are similar to N95 masks, filtering at least 95% of aerosols. These are the types of masks that are often seen in health centers and in biology laboratories.

“Anyone who has worked in such environments knows that it is not just about putting on a mask,” Kolstoe warned. “There is also training, wearing gloves, wearing the right equipment, washing hands or a proper way of doing things.”

In addition, says the doctor, it would be “unreasonable” to expect the general public to have the same training, and the use of FFP2 masks in public settings will not necessarily be as effective as in professional settings.

If FFP masks are more protective, why haven’t they told us to use them before?

At the start of the pandemic last year, authorities around the world were concerned that health workers could be left without personal protective equipment and, in particular, without FFP2 masks. “The public was advised to make their own masks or to use alternatives just to stop competition with people who work in healthcare,” Kolstoe explains.

Now that more factories are producing these masks and that they are much more widely available, authorities around the world have started encouraging the public to use them in specific settings.

In tight spaces or with a lot of people, Kolstoe says it makes sense to wear an FFP2 mask even if it isn’t as effective as in a lab: “I think it will at least make a difference.”

And the FFP masks with valves?

Valve masks should be avoided in crowded places, Kolstoe. Some masks have valves designed to filter the air that comes in, but not the air that comes out. Some valves even blow dirty air out, which could infect people nearby.

More generally, Kolstoe underscores the importance of staying away from crowds, close contact and confined spaces during the pandemic.