Throughout 2020, however, a change in behaviour has been seen across the world with regards to the use of face masks, with these increasingly being seen as part of a larger, coordinated approach to prevent the spread of Covid19. Other measures include keeping at least 1.5m from each other in public places ("social distancing", or "physical distancing" as some prefer to call it), and increased hand hygiene.
While people in many parts of the world are familiar with using face masks in their daily lives, this has been a new experience for many Australians.
Professional respirators, or N95 masks, are medical devices that prevent exposure to tiny droplets that may be suspended in the air. N95 masks are currently in very short supply around the world and should be reserved for health care providers and first responders who undergo fit-tests to ensure they are wearing the right make, model, and size for a tight seal.
Procedural and surgical masks are loose-fitting masks that are designed to cover the wearer's mouth and nose. Although these masks are not close-fitting, they are fluid resistant and provide some protection to the wearer from coughs and sneezes. However, their main function is to prevent the wearer from spreading infectious droplets to others. These masks cannot be washed or re-used.
A disposable surgical mask (left) and N95 respirator mask (right). Photograph courtesy of Thomas Perls, The Conversation)
Cloth masks are increasingly being advocated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), especially as N95 masks are in such short supply. The idea behind cloth masks is "Your cloth face covering may protect them. Their cloth face covering may protect you". As a result, a huge cloth-mask industry has evolved during 2020, both in Australia and overseas. However, as will be discussed below, it is also possible for each of us to make our own cloth masks from many common household items.
Where to purchase face masks in Australia
While people are being asked to leave N95 face masks for health care professionals due to the worldwide shortage, these are available for purchase, especially in a number of pharmacies such as Chemist Warehouse.
Procedural and surgical face masks are fairly widely available, not only in chemists but also in places such as KMart. Our local branch has had these available for purchase near to the tills for at least two months now. Anyone looking for larger quantities can look at Costco, who are advertising boxes of 50 surgical face masks, although these are limited to one per customer.
Disposable face masks are widely available online and in many shops across Australia
Finally, although it is possible to make your own cloth face mask, there are an ever-increasing variety of professionally sewn, and often trendy, cloth face masks available for purchase online and even at local markets. A great Australian brand with many beautiful designs is Bundurra, while a few minutes browsing through Etsy's face masks should satisfy most family members, with some Etsy sellers even specialising in face masks for kids.
Making your own face mask
Despite the options for purchasing face masks, many people prefer to make their own. An increasing number of health bodies are recognising this need and producing their own tutorials for making your own face mask. Although this article covers a tutorial from the CDC and the Victorian State Government's Health and Human Services Department, John Hopkins Medicine has also released instructions for making adult face masks, as well as face masks for children.
Institutes such as John Hopkins have released instructions for making children's face masks (image courtesy of John Hopkins)
It is also possible to use a number of items commonly found in most people's homes to create a face covering. These include scarves, bandannas, and hand towels, with many KMart fans using $1.50 tea towels to make their own masks. John Hopkins recommends that the best material for cloth face coverings include thicker, more densely woven fabrics, while warning that stretchy knit materials are not ideal.
Many common household items, such as scarves, can be used to construct face coverings
With people in parts of Australia now mandated or urged to wear face masks in public, and public health advisors such as Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Nick Coatsworth advising that any vulnerable person in Australia should wear a face mask when out in public, understanding the differences in the types of face masks, where to purchase them, or how to make your own, is becoming increasingly important. This article has aimed to make decisions on what sort of face mask, and where to get one, a little easier during this challenging time.