The best masks for the Omicron outbreak
When you’re shopping for your next mask, here are the key things to consider.
With Omicron now in the community, experts advise that we should all be using the highest quality masks we can find. Here’s our latest advice on the best way to protect yourself and others.
The new mask rules
Under new rules, from next Friday (4 February) a face covering will need to be an actual mask and attached to the head by loops around the ears or head. This means you can no longer use scarves, bandannas, or T-shirts pulled up over your face.
The rules also state that everyone will need to wear a mask at businesses serving food and drink, close-proximity businesses, and events and gatherings. You can only take your mask off to eat, drink or exercise.
All students from Year 4 and up will need to wear a face mask on public transport and Ministry of Education-funded school transport services.
Workers who are mandated to be vaccinated need to wear a medical grade mask when working in public-facing roles. These are either the P2, N95, KN95 or KF94 mask, or disposable surgical masks (which are usually blue on one side).
P2, N95 or KN95, KF94 masks (respirators)
These are recommended by experts as your best available options – if you can get your hands on some. Dr Lucy Telfar Barnard, an epidemiologist with the University of Otago, said the best version is the P2/N95 respirator. However, these need to fit your face snugly on all sides. Ideally, you have a few of these and rotate through them and, after wearing once, set aside for four days before re-using.
The same goes for KN95/KF94 – but she warns that these need to be purchased from a reputable source, as there are some fakes out there. Again, it needs to fit your face snugly and can be worn again after a few days.
These are the disposable ones that are usually light blue and you see a lot of people wearing. It can get confusing because “medical”, “surgical” and “procedural” are often used interchangeably to describe them. These masks are usually a blue pleated rectangle with the nose wire and elastic ear loops and are often sold in boxes of 50 for about $25.
Dr Telfar Barnard co-authored a recent study that found disposable masks can be washed and reworn. She said these masks are the second-best option behind the N95 and KN95 masks – but again, they need to fit your face snugly.
When buying a disposable mask, it can get confusing as they are marketed as meeting different standards. Dr Telfar Barnard said to check that it meets at least one of the standards, such as the EN 14683 European standard, because it shows it’s been tested. She said most disposable masks we can buy in New Zealand would meet a standard and be high quality. Dr Telfar Barnard encouraged fiddling with them to get them to best fit your face. When it fits well, you should see it moving in and out when you breathe.
If you have a surgical mask, but it doesn’t fit well, you can improve its fit by using a mask brace, wearing a well-fitting cloth mask over the top, or cutting down to fit the filter pocket in a well-fitting cloth mask. This is a good option for children’s masks in particular.
If you’re wearing a cloth mask with a surgical mask underneath or in the filter pocket, the cloth mask can be lightweight, so long as it fits well.
Cloth masks are not recommended for use during an Omicron outbreak and under the new rules those who are mandated to be vaccinated will need to wear a medical grade mask when working in public facing roles.
The rest of us can wear cloth masks, but these are not as protective.
Which? the UK equivalent of Consumer NZ, tested a bunch of reusable face coverings last year and found three-layer masks were much better at filtering particles than single-layer masks. Those with disposable filter inserts as the middle layer were most effective.
The World Health Organization gives the same advice – it says the ideal is to have an absorbent soft layer close to your face, such as cotton. The middle layer should be a fabric that’s good at filtering. The outside layer should be a tightly woven fabric such as polyester, silk or cotton.
Other features to consider include:
Whether it has a nose wire so you can mould it to your face to get a good fit.
Whether it attaches to your head with ear loops (and whether those are adjustable) or ear ties, or around the back of your head.
If you wear glasses, you may find a mask that sits further up your face allows you to put your glasses over the top of the mask and prevent fogging.
Whether it can be put in the wash with the rest of your washing or whether it needs handwashing.
Other types of masks
Avoid masks that have a valve. The valve filters what you’re breathing in but not what you’re breathing out – so you’re only protecting yourself. If you have a mask with a valve, cover the valve with surgical tape both inside and out. The tape on the inside prevents you breathing virus onto others. The tape on the outside shows people you’ve covered the valve.
Shields offer extra eye protection, but they should be worn in addition to face masks and not instead of.
Masks are here to stay
Dr Telfar Barnard said we can expect masks to be part of the rest of our lives now. She believes New Zealanders will adopt the attitude common in Southeast Asian countries, where people wear a mask if they feel like they’re coming down with something to protect others.
“I would hope that would become part of our health behaviour because it really does help,” she said.