How many masks should you wear while out and about this weekend?

Fine weather has seen large numbers venturing outdoors, yet the infection rate is still high

I know that I have to wear a mask when in retail outlets and on public transport, but should I wear a mask when out for a walk – especially in a busy park or on a busy footpath?
The Government's Covid-19 guidelines advise people to wear masks in busy or crowded outdoor spaces. The key concern outdoors is not so much that you will pick up the virus from passersby, it is that you could pass it on when you stop to chat to people or when you are standing in an outdoors queue. Wearing a mask outdoors helps to prevent people who are unaware that they have the virus from spreading it.

Should I wear one mask or two?
Debate around wearing two masks – a disposable surgical mask with a reusable face covering on top – has increased since the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in the United States recommended the wearing of tight fitting medical masks under a cloth mask to stop the spread of the disease. Dr Ronan Glynn, the deputy chief medical officer, says that he wouldn't discourage anyone from double masking: "I think the key element of the CDC study is to emphasise the importance of a well fitting mask."

Professor Sam McConkey, Head of the Department of International Health and Tropical Medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) and Consultant in Infectious Diseases adds that one really good mask is fine. “Really, masks need to be comfortable – not too tight or not too loose and worn properly. There’s no point in wearing a mask that doesn’t cover your nose or wearing one down on your chin which I’ve seen some people do,” he says.

Which types of masks are now deemed to be the best?
A comfortable, well fitting mask that covers your nose, mouth and chin is the best one to wear. Frontline health workers wear disposable respirator face masks (also called N95 masks because they filter at least 95 per cent of airborne particles) to protect themselves when in face-to-face contact with patients with or suspected of having infectious diseases including Covid-19. Many healthcare workers and members of the public wear disposable surgical/medical masks (the light blue pleated ones) which have a metal bar that can be sculpted around the nose for a better fit.


The World Health Organisation recommends that those over 60 and those with underlying health conditions wear disposable medical masks rather than cloth face coverings. Cloth face coverings – either homemade or purchased – should have three layers of fabric and fit correctly with straps around the ears or around the back of the head. Some have an inner nose wire to mould around the nose for a better fit.

Which type should be avoided?
It's not so much that a certain type of mask should be avoided but poor quality masks which aren't snugly fitting on the face and have loose ear straps won't prevent virus particles from escaping from your mouth or nose. Medical masks or reusable face coverings won't work properly either if they become moist or wet. If this happens, replace your mask with a new one.

Do masks provide the same level of protection against new variants of Covid-19 from the UK, South Africa and Brazil?
"All the public health measures are less effective against the new variants because they are more transmissible in every way," says McConkey. It's important to remember that mask-wearing is just one of a suite of measures – keeping two metres apart from people outside your household, coughing/sneezing into your bent elbow and washing your hands regularly with soapy water – to prevent the spread of Covid-19. The UK variant (B117) now accounts for more than 90 per cent of cases in Ireland.

What about a scarf or snood [soft fabric scarf/hat which can be pulled up to cover the mouth and nose]? Do these provide the same protection? If you wear one with a mask, have you greater protection?
McConkey says that any face covering is better than none. "Really, it depends on how tight the weave is or how many layers of fabric it has," he says. As scarves and snoods are a fashion accessory, it's prudent to wear a mask underneath one when in close contact with those outside your household.

Can I use masks more than once? And what are the handling and washing instructions?
It's good practice to keep unused face masks in a clean plastic waterproof bag. Keep used face masks in a different plastic bag. "I keep a plastic bag in one pocket for clean masks and a plastic bag in another pocket for used masks," says McConkey. Wash your hands before you put on your mask. Don't touch it while wearing it. Take it off using the straps and wash your hands again. It's never a good idea to lower your mask to speak, eat or drink. If you need to uncover your nose or mouth, take the mask off and put it in a plastic bag. Disposable masks should be put in street bins or household waste bins (they are not recyclable or compostable) after use.

While they are made for single use only, an Irish study is currently investigating whether disposable medical masks are suitable for multiple uses if sterilised after each use. Re-usable cloth face coverings can be used until they no longer fit properly. They should be washed regularly in warm soapy water. Never share reusable face coverings with others.