What is the difference between a face mask and a face covering?
Updated 29th March 2021 - We recommend the coronavirus page on the NHS website for more up to date information.
If you’ve been keeping up with the latest government guidelines regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, you will have seen advice regarding face coverings. It’s now a legal requirement to wear a face covering in many indoor settings and when you travel on public transport in England.
It’s also mandatory to wear a face covering when you:
- go to your GP surgery or hospital as a visitor or outpatient
- travel on an airplane
- visit an indoor shopping centre, supermarket, indoor market or other shops
- go to a restaurant or pub except when you're eating or drinking
- go to a bank or building society
- visit a post office, library or auction house
- are in indoor transport hubs
- visit premises providing financial, legal and professional services such as banks and building societies
- go to a vets
- go to visitor attractions such as museums, cinemas, bingo halls and theme parks
- are in places of worship
- visit funeral service providers
- are in community centres, youth centres and social clubs
- are in public areas in hostels and hotels
You can view a full list of when to wear a face mask and the government advises that people wear them whenever they are in a space where it is difficult to maintain safe social distancing i.e. you cannot keep two metres away from other people.
“Face covering” is the term being used by the UK government to describe a piece of material that can be secured around the face to cover the nose and mouth. Face coverings can be worn by the general public, but healthcare or and other “at risk” workers must wear the medically graded face masks
A face covering is not the same as the surgical masks or respirators used by healthcare and other workers as part of personal protective equipment. These should continue to be reserved for those who need them to protect against risks in their workplace, such as health and care workers, and those in industrial settings, like those exposed to dust hazards.
In short, “face covering” is a general term that might apply to any of the following:
- Homemade mask
- Shop-bought disposable or reusable mask
A covering will be suitable if it can tie comfortably around your head, cover your nose and mouth, and allow you to breathe easily.
What is the difference between a face mask and a surgical mask?
Surgical masks are a specific type of face mask usually worn by healthcare workers. They are made of thin material (normally blue and white) and have elasticated ear loops. They are designed to be disposable, which means they should be thrown away after one use.
“Face mask” is a term used for healthcare workers and those who encounter work-related risk of COVID-19. Whereas “face coverings” is a more general term that can apply to lots of different kinds of disposable and reusable face coverings. You don’t need to wear a surgical-style mask when you leave the house to shop or travel on public transport; a simple face covering such as scarf, bandana or homemade covering will be sufficient.
What is the difference between a face mask and a face shield?
A face shield is a special type of clear plastic visor worn by people at risk in employment, such as healthcare workers. It is different to a face mask, as it doesn’t simply cover the nose and mouth, but rather the entire face.
The key benefit of a face shield is that it is fluid-resistant i.e. it prevents bodily fluids from making contact with the face. For healthcare workers treating patients who have COVID-19, a face shield is an important piece of personal protective equipment (PPE).
There is no need for members of the general public to use face shields when they are out of the house. It is only necessary for healthcare workers, or those working in certain industries who are coming into close contact with people who may have or there is a high possibility that they have COVID-19.
Where can I get a face mask?
You can easily order face masks online – we have disposable, surgical-style masks as well as reusable masks which can be washed with your normal laundry. As an alternative you can make a face covering using an old t-shirt or some scrap fabric – to find out how, consult this guide from Public Health England.
To learn more about different types of face mask, and how they work, take a look at our guide.
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This isn't a substitute for COVID-19 infection control measures, so please always follow Government guidelines for COVID-19.