For fear of coronaviruses, many try to protect themselves from the infection with an operating face mask. Carrying is mandatory in many Chinese cities. What does paper fleece bring?

Simple mouth-nose protection – a mask made of a very thin paper fleece that is tied with ribbons behind the head – was previously used almost exclusively in operating theaters.

Doctors and OR assistants wear this mouthguard primarily so that they do not infect their patients with pathogens on the operating table. When a wearer of the mask coughs or sneezes, most droplets from the mouth and throat get stuck in the mask.

But this only works in the long run if the mask is changed regularly and disposed of hygienically and safely. In the operating room, the mask must be changed at least every two hours. However, if you wear such a mask, again and again, it quickly loses its function.

How much self-protection does the mask offer?

The wearer of the mask can protect himself against droplet and smear infections, but only to a very limited extent. The virus usually penetrates the body through the mouth or eyes (if there are no open wounds), but the most important role is played by the hands.

The surgical mask, and then also protective glasses, are used less to trap the virus-containing droplets. Rather, they are a constant reminder that you shouldn’t touch your hands with your nose when itches. You shouldn’t rub your eyes, either.

A woman wears an FFP-3 respirator and has a child in her arms (picture-alliance / dpa / R. incense)A high-quality FFP-3 mask also protects against viruses, bacteria, fungal spores, and asbestos when used correctly.

Half masks offer better protection

In addition to the surgical masks, which look more like multi-layer disposable kitchen towels, there are also half masks with a correct filter effect. These are more known from the artisan’s needs – especially for protection against harmful specks of dust and aerosols. They are available either as a disposable mask, usually pressed from strong cellulose with a filter element and an exhalation valve or as a plastic mask in which a suitable filter is then inserted.

In the European Union, these masks are divided into three FFP protection classes (filtering facepiece). Masks with protection level FFP1 are still better than surgical masks, but they do not offer the desired protection against viruses.

For example, they are intended for carpenters who are working on a band saw with an extraction system to intercept the coarser specks of dust that the vacuum cleaner no longer traps. Or a bricklayer can put it on before mixing cement with the trowel and whirling up some dust. 

Class FFP-3 masks, on the other hand, protect the wearer from droplet aerosols, protein molecules, viruses, bacteria, fungi, and spores, but not from highly dangerous specks of dust such as asbestos fibers.

A Polish soldier in Wroclaw gets on a bus with evacuees from Wuhan.  He is wearing a full body suit and a military gas mask with ABC filter (picture-alliance / AP Photo / A. Rataj)If you want to protect yourself effectively, you need more than just the right mask.

If you have a mask – then do it correctly

Such high-quality filter masks – unlike the simple surgical mask – can protect the wearer from infection due to their design. So also against a highly infectious pathogen such as measles or tuberculosis.

But here, too, protection only works if many other protective measures are taken at the same time: strict hygiene when putting on a mask, protective goggles, gloves, and plastic smock or apron or overalls, professional disposal of potentially contaminated disposable items and regular hand washing. Besides, the environment must always be systematically disinfected.

These masks – together with all other aids – are used, for example, in quarantine stations, where verifiably infected patients have already been cared for. The medical specialists make a considerable effort to put on and take off all protective clothing, including the protective mask.

However, this effort would be completely disproportionate for local public transport or working on a keyboard at changing workstations.  

Protests in Hong Kong (picture-alliance / dpa / Zuma / C. Long Hei)Different variants in Hong Kong: an FFP half mask (center), surgical masks (right and left)

And what about tear gas?

The demonstrators in Hong Kong also wore a variety of different protective masks – from simple surgical masks to half masks with filters.

Surgery masks are used most by the demonstrators to mask their identity. However, if the police fire tears gas grenades that spray an aerosol, only FFP-3 filters can have a certain protective effect. So that the tear gas does not get into your eyes, airtight protective glasses are necessary.

However, industrial safety filters from the hardware store do not offer real protection. A proper full-face gas mask with a military ABC filter would be more recommendable. 

And of course, it also protects against viruses. But nobody wants to run around in everyday life. 

Best protective measure: don’t forget to wash your hands

All masks and safety glasses are of little use if you neglect the most important hygienic principles. For example, if I come home after a long journey on the bus and train, where I have touched handles, handrails, and handles, take off the mask and then scratch my nose directly, I could have done without a protective mask.

It is the same at work: If I have been working on the computer all morning and then have lunch without washing my hands beforehand, I take a considerable risk. The reason: computer keyboards are among the worst germ spinners ever. Wearing a mask at the computer workstation would also have been of little use. 


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