As new variants of the coronavirus spread across Europe, authorities are adapting their advice and regulations on the type of face covering.

Health authorities in France warned early on that handcrafted cloth masks might not provide enough protection. The German state of Bavaria has been requiring FFP2 masks to be worn on public transport and in shops since mid-January, and Austria has followed suit. It is now mandatory to wear at least FFP2 or medical masks everywhere in Germany and Austria.

What can FFP2 masks do that others cannot?

It is important to know that there are two main types of masks on the market.

On the one hand, there are masks that are supposed to prevent you from breathing in other people. Think of cloth masks or blue and white surgical masks. When the wearer coughs or sneezes, most of the droplets expelled are caught in the mask instead of landing on people nearby. But they are not effective in preventing the wearer from inhaling much smaller particles of the coronavirus that are in the air.

In contrast, FFP2 masks also serve as personal protective equipment: they are designed to protect the wearer from inhaling much smaller virus particles, as they have a filter. Because FFP 2 masks are filtering face masks, which are even referred to as respiratory masks.

In Europe, FFP2 masks filter at least 94 percent of aerosols. They are comparable to N95 masks, which filter at least 95 percent of the aerosols. These types of masks are often used in health facilities and biology laboratories because they achieve very good filter effects.

If FFP masks offer better protection, why haven’t we been encouraged to wear them sooner?

At the start of the pandemic last year, authorities around the world were concerned that health workers would run out of personal protective equipment, and especially FFP2 masks.

Now that more factories are making such masks and they are much more widespread, people around the world have started encouraging the public to wear them in certain situations. Germany, too, has therefore made it an obligation to turn away from cloth masks.