Most face masks to protect against coronavirus do not meet standards

Consumers told to look for ‘SWiFT 19’ approval mark on any masks they buy

Pedestrians wear face masks on Dublin’s O’Connell Street. File photo. Photograph: Alan Betson

Pedestrians wear face masks on Dublin’s O’Connell Street. File photo. Photograph: Alan Betson

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The majority of face masks on sale to protect against the spread of coronavirus do not comply with regulations, Ireland’s official standards body is warning.

The National Standards Authority of Ireland (NSAI) worked with the Department of Health, the Health Service Executive (HSE) and the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission earlier this year to “fast track” a new standard for coverings.

Known as SWiFT 19, the standard – which should be printed on packaging for products that meet the criteria – tells shoppers that a mask has been tested and deemed suitable for use in adhering to public health advice during the pandemic.

Along with a subsequent European standard – known as CEN/CWA 17553 – it is designed to reassure consumers that a mask is made of suitable material, is breathable, protects others from the spread of the virus and is comfortable to be worn for a period of time.

Elizabeth O’Ferrall, of the NSAI, who led the project to develop the SWiFT 19 standard, said most masks for sale, including designer labels and major sporting brands, do not adhere, or state that they adhere, to the specification.

“I would say, from trawling products, that the majority are not complying with any specification at all,” she told The Irish Times.

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“That is really challenging in terms of consumer protection.”

Ms O’Ferrall said some people are buying designer or sporting-brand face masks that they have seen worn by celebrities or high-profile figures yet “they don’t comply with any specifications”.

Pointing to masks not designed properly, she said there are many examples where “key leaders” appear in public or on television “where they spend the whole time pulling it up on their nose because it is falling down”.


People have also complained, she said, that masks are not breathable while some mask manufacturers claim they are reusable but do not state for how long or how often they can be washed before becoming ineffective.

The SWiFT 19 standard compels manufacturers to state such detail.

Ms O’Ferrall said there was also an issue over home-made masks. While some she had seen looked to meet the standard, she said “without testing we don’t know if they comply or not”.

However, she pointed to international public health advice that “any face mask is better than no face mask”.

Amid an “alarming” rise in the transmission of Covid-19 across Europe, the NSAI is urging shoppers to make sure their face masks for day-to-day use are meeting either the Irish or European specifications.

Geraldine Larkin, NSAI chief executive, said the SWiFT 19 specification was drawn up in direct response to the coronavirus crisis by experts to ensure non-medical and non-PPE face masks for the general public are safe and effective to use.

“When used in conjunction with relevant public health advice such as hand washing and social distancing, these masks may contribute to the prevention of the spread of viral infections such as Covid-19,” she added.