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

Health officials in France were quick to warn that handmade cloth masks may not offer enough protection. The German state of Bavaria has now required FFP2 masks to be worn on public transport and in shops since mid-January, and Austria has followed suit. In the meantime it is obligatory 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.

For one, there are masks that are designed to prevent you from breathing on other people. Think 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 do not effectively prevent the carrier 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 because they have a filter. Because FFP 2 masks are filtering face masks, which are even called respirators.

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

If FFP masks offer better protection, why weren’t we encouraged to wear them earlier?

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

Now that more factories are making such masks and they are much more widely available, people around the world have started encouraging the public to wear them in certain situations. Germany has therefore also made it compulsory to move away from fabric masks.

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