How ffp2 masks protect against the coronavirus

Masks that cover the mouth and nose help prevent the spread of coronavirus. Here you can find out how they do it and what the difference is between FFP2 masks, everyday masks and surgical masks. And what you should keep in mind when using them.

Covering the mouth and nose is thought to curb the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. Initially and in times of low incidence, wearing so-called surgical masks or everyday masks was sufficient to comply with the regulations. But in Bavaria, an FFP2 mask must be worn in retail, public transport and various other situations where there is a high incidence of infection. About this mask duty is argued again and again. Sometimes it gets into the background that masks are only one building block in the fight against the pandemic. Equally important are measures such as keeping your distance, observing hygiene rules and regular ventilation.

What to consider when wearing a mask?

A mouth-nose protector only provides optimal protection if it is used correctly. The recommendations should be followed as closely as possible, even if this is time-consuming and sometimes difficult to implement in everyday life. It’s true for FFP2 masks as it is for surgical masks or fabric masks:

  • When putting on a mask, avoid getting pathogens on the inside. Therefore, wash or sanitize hands thoroughly beforehand.
  • The mask must cover the mouth, nose and cheeks properly! It should fit tightly flush at the edges so that little or no air can enter and escape unfiltered at the sides.
  • When wearing for the first time, test whether the mask allows enough air through. It should impede normal breathing as little as possible.
  • If the mask is soaked, remove it and replace it with a fresh, dry one.
  • There may be pathogens on the outside of the used mask. Therefore one should avoid touching them. Better use the retaining straps when putting on and taking off the mask. This also means: Do not pull the mouth-nose protection under the nose or under the chin in between and later pull it up again in front of the face.
  • Wash hands thoroughly after taking off the mask. Wash a washable community mask immediately at at least 60 degrees or store it in an airtight container until then. But not for long, otherwise there is a risk of mold.

How long FFP2 masks may be worn?

FFP2 masks are actually disposable products that should be discarded after one work shift. FFP2 masks should also be replaced if they become soaked, because they then no longer filter as well. Most FFP2 masks are labeled "NR" for "not reusable (not reusable) characterized. Few reusable ones carry an "R" (reusable). In many everyday situations, however, FFP2 masks are not worn for several hours as in working life, but only briefly when shopping or during a trip on public transport. FFP2 masks can be used several times. However, they must be allowed to dry thoroughly after each use, and in a place where they cannot contaminate other items. Studies by the University of Applied Sciences in Munster conclude that you should leave the masks to dry at room temperature for at least a week or in an oven at 80 degrees for an hour (but not above 100 degrees) so that pathogens are killed on the tissue.

But refrain from washing, disinfectants or high heat. These are not suitable care options for FFP2 masks. This way, viruses can be rendered harmless, but the material of the masks is also damaged or destroyed and their effectiveness is gone.

A smaller study of 15 common FFP2 mask models conducted by the Munich University of Applied Sciences on 21. December 2021 found that while half of the reused masks had decreased filtering capacity, in almost all cases they still met the required standard of filtering performance. For the test, the masks were exposed to ventilation in a ventilation simulator twice for twelve hours each, followed by drying.

How does the coronavirus spread?

In most cases, people become infected with coronaviruses through the air. Infected people spread it through droplets of saliva and nasal secretions they exhale when coughing, sneezing, and talking, and so-called aerosols produced when exhaling. Aerosols are a mixture of air and tiny particles. Unlike droplets, they can stay airborne for longer periods of time and travel further distances. An infected person can spread viruses with the air he or she breathes when he or she has no symptoms of the disease or does not develop any at all.

How does a mask reduce the spread of the coronavirus??

With a surgical mask or everyday mask, the wearer protects those around them from possible infection. The mask reduces the expulsion of droplets and aerosols, and therefore pathogens, from the respiratory tract. While much of the particulate matter in an aerosol is smaller than 5 microns and can therefore pass between the meshes of fabric masks to the outside world. However, when exhaling, a mask also slows down the aerosol that comes out of the respiratory tract with the airflow. In this way, a mask can reduce the concentration of infectious particles in the immediate environment of the mask wearer. Possibly a surgical mask or everyday mask also protects its wearer. An FFP2 mask, worn correctly, does this in any case. The material it is made of filters most of the virus-sized particles out of the air you breathe. This is true even if it is not explicitly stated in the enclosed instructions for use.

What shows the effectiveness of masks against the coronavirus?

Early on, a study in Jena was able to show the effectiveness of the mouth-nose guard. It was the first major German city to mandate mandatory masks while shopping and on public transport back in early April 2020. For another study, researchers looked at different German regions where wearing face masks became mandatory at different points in time. This allowed them to compare the increase in infections in regions with masks and regions without masks. Result: 20 days after the introduction of mandatory face masks, the number of new infections was reduced by about 45 percent. In February 2021, a review of several studies from the U.S., Canada, China, Thailand and Germany reconfirmed how effective mask-wearing can be in curbing the spread of coronavirus.

How masks protect against the coronavirus

© BR24
Image rights: BR24

Which masks protect how?

How well a mouth-nose guard works also depends on its material. Scientists at Duke University in the U.S. have compared how effectively different face masks retain droplets when people speak. Best cut FFP2 masks without a valve to exhale from. They retained more than 99.9 percent of droplets. Came in second place surgical masks with more than 90 percent, followed by self-sewn Cotton masks with 70 to 90 percent, depending on the number of layers of fabric and folds. FFP2 masks with valve for exhalation acted as a droplet brake as simple cotton masks and thus significantly worse than the FFP2 masks without breathing valve. Neckerchiefs let about half of the droplets through. The worst performing masks are Tube scarf made of polar fleece From. In his case, the number of droplets emitted was even higher than when speaking without any face covering.

Is there a difference between FFP2 masks and N95 masks??

Respirators are tested to different standards around the world. For example, the filter performance and how high the resistance is during inhalation and exhalation are tested. However, the requirements for the individual test seals are very similar for FFP2 (Europe), N95 (USA), KN95 (China) and the other standards such as in Japan, Korea and Brazil. This means: masks that comply with one of the standards also comply with the others, except for some fine details, and are of the same quality in practice.

Can wearing a mask be harmful to health??

If you are healthy, you can wear a mouth-nose protection without any worries. The mask does increase resistance when breathing, but this is compensated for by breathing more forcefully. After wearing a mouth-nose protection for a longer period of time, the carbon dioxide concentration in the blood can actually increase slightly. In a study with volunteers, however, there were no health-relevant changes in blood gas levels even during short-term high workloads. Feeling like it’s hard to breathe is not an indication of more CO2 in the blood.

A small increase in CO2 concentration leads at most to slight fatigue, but only in people who are very sensitive to it. By the way, this also applies to children, as a study from Singapore has shown. However, in December 2021 Stiftung Warentest criticized the fact that breathing resistance was too often too high in children’s masks.

Masks also do not cause respiratory infections if properly and regularly cleaned and stored in a clean place.

Is there an upper time limit for wearing masks?

Opponents of mandatory masks repeatedly refer to alleged regulations that are supposed to limit their wearing time. One of them is said to be from the German Social Accident Insurance (DGUV), namely the DGUV rule "Use of respiratory protective equipment", which was valid long before the coronavirus pandemic. The DGUV is the umbrella organization of the German Social Accident Insurance Institutions (Berufsgenossenschaften) and accident insurance funds (Unfallkassen), which are responsible, among other things, for preventing health hazards at work, including the threat of infection with the coronavirus.

In the DGUV regulation "Use of respiratory protective equipment" there is actually a wearing time limit for FFP2 masks. For "particle-filtering half masks without an exhalation valve" there is a maximum duration of use of 75 minutes specified, followed by a recovery period of 30 minutes. These are "guide values derived from many years of experience". The duration of use is therefore intended to prevent possible overexposure at work and is not an indication of a maximum wearing time above which there is a risk to health. Companies can explicitly specify other durations of use, but they should adhere to the recovery period.

As early as spring 2020, following the introduction of the obligation to wear an everyday mask, the DGUV received an increasing number of inquiries about the use of mouth/nose coverings. In May 2020, the DGUV had published a recommendation on wearing time limits for mouth-to-nose coverings. The recommended wearing times for cotton, linen or silk mouth-nose coverings and medical face masks are the same as for particle-filtering half masks with an exhalation valve.

For medium-duty work, the DGUV now recommends wearing these masks for two and a half hours, followed by a recovery period of 30 minutes. This does not mean a break from work, but rather an activity that is possible without a mask and in compliance with the other applicable hygiene regulations. According to the DGUV, an extension of the wearing time to three hours is also possible in the case of light work. These recommendations are not legally binding and are not intended to be so.

If the minimum distance of 1.50 meters to other persons is ensured and the situation otherwise permits, it is often possible, in the view of the DGUV, to remove the face mask for a short time. This alone should usually ensure adequate recovery. In addition, the DGUV clarifies that the protection of the statutory accident insurance also applies in schools when students and teachers wear mouth and nose coverings.

Why sales personnel in Bavaria do not have to wear FFP2 masks?

Initially, the FFP2 mask requirement did not provide for any exceptions in the retail sector. However, the Bavarian Trade Association HBE has successfully lobbied for this to apply only to customers, but not to sales personnel. According to the HBE, an alternation between a maximum of 75 minutes of wearing time and a break of at least 30 minutes for recovery, as recommended by the DGUV, is not feasible in practice.

Minimal effects even with very severe lung dysfunction

However, for people with massive breathing problems, for example due to impaired lung function, angina pectoris or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), wearing a mask can actually cause problems. But the effects are minimal at best, even in people with very severe lung dysfunction, a study by the American Thoracic Society found. People for whom mouth-nose covering interferes with breathing to such an extent that their health could suffer are therefore exempt from the mask requirement. You should, however, have an appropriate medical certificate or a severely disabled person’s ID card with you so that you can show proof in the event of a check-up.

What are "Corona killer masks"??

Some manufacturers advertise face masks with special coating. They should not only retain the coronaviruses, but also make them harmless. Experts believe the technology behind it is plausible. However, even such masks do not offer 100% protection. Reasonable hygiene, thorough hand washing and a conventional mouth-nose covering as well as sufficient distance are sufficient as protection. In addition, the "killer masks" can be contain harmful substances. For this reason, the drugstore chain Muller had a batch of the "viral Protect" brand masks in December 2020 recalled. These masks are not a substitute for an FFP2 mask. The ingredients of the coating may kill viruses, but have no effect on the filtering performance of the mask.

What are the benefits of transparent masks?

A correctly worn mouth-nose protection covers about half of the face and thus also the facial expressions that take place there. For some people, this is an essential problem: deaf people, for example, can no longer read what their counterpart is saying from their lips. Communication is also difficult in child care and nursing facilities if those working there cannot articulate themselves through facial expressions. As a result, clear-face masks have been and continue to be offered as an alternative to mouth-to-nose cover and surgical masks. However, they are not sufficient in the case of a mask requirement, even in times when the mask requirement is already met with surgical or fabric masks.

Plastic masks no longer permitted in Bavaria

Many of the clear plastic masks cover only a little more than the mouth and nose, leaving a significant gap at the edges to the face. With these, exhaled air can escape sideways and downwards. This means that the plastic masks cannot stop aerosols and thus coronaviruses. A study by the University of Applied Sciences in Munich showed that aerosols spread strongly in the room when a clear face mask is worn.

Transparent plastic masks that leave a gap can therefore only be considered for additional protection in situations and locations where masks are not mandatory. However, this poses problems for people who, for example, wore a transparent mask while shopping or on public transportation because of a hearing impairment. At the end of 2020, the Bavarian State Government Commissioner for the Disabled called for "new solutions to be developed and offered that meet the requirements of infection protection and the needs of people with disabilities."

Face visor not an alternative

At times, some people use a transparent face visor (face shield) instead of a mouth-nose covering. This is more comfortable to wear, but hardly suitable as protection against infection, since it does not filter the air breathed at all. The limited effect of face visors was shown in a study by Florida Atlantic University: when coughing and sneezing, the visor blocks the airflow to the front, but it is relatively easy for the ejected droplets to travel around the visor and disperse into the environment. The Robert Koch Institute also states that visors can at most catch the droplets that occur directly on the lens.

However, a face visor can protect the wearer from potentially infectious droplets emitted by his or her counterpart. Therefore, a visor can be a useful addition to a mouth-nose protection, for example in a dental practice. However, it is by no means a substitute for mouth-nose protection.

Why there was no mask requirement at the beginning of the Covid 19 pandemic?

At the onset of the Covid 19 pandemic in early 2020, it was unclear how the novel Corona virus would be passed from person to person. It is now known that droplets and aerosols play an important role in the spread of pathogens. The risk of so-called smear infection, for example by touching objects such as doorknobs, is now considered to be less than it was at the time.

Because the coronavirus is passed primarily through the respiratory tract, mouth-to-nose coverage protects against its spread. However, as of spring 2020, no scientific studies existed to determine whether these are an effective antidote. This is why there was initial skepticism about mouth-to-nose masking, including from the World Health Organization (WHO). However, this has long also recommended masks as protection against infection. Numerous studies prove that the wearer of a mouth-to-nose cover protects his fellow human beings from infection and apparently himself as well.

© Bayerischer Rundfunk
Image rights: Bayerischer Rundfunk 2021

Stiftung Warentest has examined FFP2 masks from drugstores, hardware stores, online retailers and pharmacies. The filtering effect was high for all. However, not all models protected equally well.

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