A health alert has been issued over some reusable facemasks with evidence that some filter out just 7per cent of harmful bacteria.
The warning comes from consumer experts at Which? after a survey of 15 masks which suggest some offer little or no protection.
Three of the masks, available online and in the high street, were so flimsy that they have been issued with a ‘Don’t Buy’ rating.
These include the Etiquette mask, which is sold by Superdrug, the Termin8 Lightweight Breathable, available at Lloyds Pharmacy and elsewhere, and the Asda White Patterned.
Asda has pulled its face covering from sale as a result of the findings.
Asda has pulled its face covering (left) from sale as a result of the findings. Right, the Termin8 Lightweight Breathable mask did not fare well in the tests
Why you really aren’t washing your mask enough and CAN’T wear a disposable one more than once
As many as 85 per cent of us aren’t washing our fabric face coverings properly in between uses, and 15 per cent have never washed theirs, suggests a YouGov survey from August.
And among those who opt for disposable masks, more than half aren’t binning them after use, but re-wearing them multiple times.
UK Government guidelines advise washing reusable masks ‘in line with manufacturers’ instructions at the highest temperature appropriate for the fabric’, while the World Health Organisation recommends washing them ‘at least once a day’.
Enzymes in the detergents break down the protective envelope around the virus and so destroy it — they work in the same way as 70 per cent alcohol hand sanitisers.
Washing by hand at lower temperatures also means you are less likely to degrade the material and damage the mask — which could make it less effective as a barrier to virus droplets.
To avoid contamination in between uses, you should store your fabric mask, or your spare disposable ones, in a clean, resealable plastic bag.
Termin8 and Superdrug disputed the findings and said that their masks conform to government guidelines for fabric face coverings and that the guidance doesn’t require them to have bacterial filtration.
Scientists tested the masks for how well they filter bacteria, how breathable they are, and how they fare after multiple washes.
Perhaps surprisingly, Which? found that many of the masks performed better after they were put through a hot wash as this meant the fibres became more compressed.
Which? said reusable fabric face coverings are not designed to block ultra-fine particles such as Covid-19 like a higher-grade medical respirator mask would.
However, they can help because they are intended to help block larger droplets and aerosols breathed out by the wearer, who may be infected but asymptomatic.
In theory, this should help protect the wider community by minimising exhalation of virus particles in enclosed spaces.
Masks with multiple layers were much more effective than single layer versions at filtering particles.
However, the fact they had more layers meant it was more difficult to breathe easily through them.
Which? awarded two of the products tested ‘Best Buy’ status because they were comfortable and breathable without compromising on filtration.
These are the NEQI reusable face mask (£15 for 3), which is available from retailers including Boots and Ocado, as well as Bags of Ethics Great British Designer face coverings (£15 for 3), available at Asos and John Lewis.
The Asos design Palm Print face covering, which costs £12, scored an impressive 78% in the tests.
Researchers said the 100% cotton three-layer face covering ‘did pretty well’ on filtration tests fresh out of the packet, but it improved markedly after washing.
They say ‘it’s worth washing it before using it.’ The mask scored joint highest for comfort with glasses.
Head of Home Products and Services at Which?, Natalie Hitchins, said: ‘With face coverings now such an important part of daily life, they not only need to be durable and comfortable, but also provide effective filtration from harmful particles in order to keep us and others safe.
‘We would urge manufacturers to use our findings to up their game and improve their products.’
The Asos design Palm Print face covering, which costs £12, scored well with a 78% overall rating in the tests
Three of the masks were issued with a ‘Don’t Buy’ rating. These include the Etiquette mask, which is sold by Superdrug (left). Right, The NEQI reusable face mask was awarded ‘Best Buy’ status
What is ‘bacterial filtration efficiency’?
This is the standard test used to measure the effectiveness of disposable surgical masks at blocking particles. Coronavirus particles can be much smaller than bacterial particles (as little as 0.1 micrometre in diameter).
Face coverings aren’t intended to block all particles down to these ultra-fine particles, but instead to help capture larger droplets and aerosols that the wearer breathes out, which can carry the virus.
Collectively, this reduction in particles escaping is thought to reduce the risk of community transmission in enclosed public spaces.
Lloyds Pharmacy said: ‘We take the quality and efficacy of the products we sell very seriously and work with our suppliers to ensure they comply with UK regulations and standards.
‘We have confirmed with the supplier of the Termin8 mask in question that it is compliant with all necessary requirements as set out by the Department for Health & Social Care and the British Retail Consortium, for use as a face covering in numerous public settings as required by UK law.’
Superdrug said: ‘We dispute the testing methods that have been used by Which? and are disappointed that the fabric Face Cover by our supplier Etiquette Super Mask has been given a ‘Don’t Buy’ rating because it has been tested against the EN 14683 standard for surgical masks and the CEN Workshop Agreement which is not an official standard.
‘This product was clearly retailed as a fabric face covering and not a surgical mask – designed to help the wearer reduce the spread of a cold or virus, as per Government guidelines.’
Asda said: ‘Product safety is our key priority and all of our George face coverings comply with and British Retail Consortium guidance and the Office for Product Safety and Standards.
‘The covering that featured in this review was produced before the CWA17533 guidelines were published and is no longer on sale.’
Bags of Ethics Great British Designer face coverings (£15 for 3), available at Asos and John Lewis, were awarded Best Buy status
FACE MASK POLICY IN THE UK
Face masks must be worn on public transport and in many indoor spaces, including shops, shopping centres, indoor transport hubs, museums, galleries, cinemas and public libraries.
It is currently the law for passengers to wear face coverings in taxis and private hire vehicles, in hospitality venues, like restaurants and bars, other than when you are eating and drinking. Staff in retail and hospitality settings are also legally required to wear face coverings.
If necessary, the police and Transport for London (TfL) officers have enforcement powers including issuing fines of £200 (halving to £100 if paid within 14 days).
It comes after the World Health Organisation and numerous studies suggested they are beneficial.
As announced, the Government will bring forward changes to mean that for repeat offenders these fines would double at each offence up to a maximum value of £6,400.
The Prime Minister has also announced tougher enforcement measures, with businesses facing fines or closure for failing to comply with coronavirus rules, meaning there will be consequences for pubs that try to serve you at the bar.
National Police Chiefs’ Council chairman Martin Hewitt said: ‘Individuals, businesses and households all have a responsibility to ensure the virus is suppressed and police will play their part in supporting the public to navigate the measures in place for our safety.
‘Our approach of engaging with people and explaining the regulations in place will remain. The vast majority of situations are resolved following those two stages, with little need for further encouragement or enforcement action to be taken,’ he said.
‘Police will continue to work with their communities and only issue fines as a last resort.
‘Chiefs will be stepping up patrols in high-risk areas and will proactively work with businesses, licensing authorities and local authorities to ensure the rules are being followed.
‘If members of the public are concerned that the law is being broken or they are experiencing anti-social behaviour, they can report this to the police, who will consider the most appropriate response and will target the most problematic behaviour.’