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Masks

Masks are most effective when fitted, worn and handled correctly. They act as a barrier and, in combination with other measures, can help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Last updated: April 25, 2022
The information on this page is for the public. Health care professionals should refer to information about personal protective equipment for health care settings.

When someone with COVID-19 coughs, sneezes, sings, speaks or breathes they release small particles that can spread the virus to others who are nearby. Some people can spread the virus when they have very mild symptoms or are unaware that they have COVID-19.

Masks are one of many layers of protection we use to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

In this section
  1. How to wear a mask
  2. Types of masks
  3. When to wear a mask
  4. Children and masks
  5. Cleaning and disposing of masks
  6. Environmental impacts of disposable masks

How to wear a mask

All masks should fit comfortably over the mouth and nose with no gaps around the face. Wearing a mask should be combined with other important protective measures such as getting all the recommended doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, staying home when sick, avoiding crowds, and hand washing.

  • The mask should be held snugly in place with ties or ear loops.
  • Masks that are uncomfortable and need frequent adjustment are less effective.
  • Respirators or masks with valves should not be used because they allow the breath of the wearer to escape, which could spread infectious particles to others.
  • Masks should only be used by one person and should never be shared.
  • Wash or sanitize your hands before putting on your mask and after taking it off.

Please see the How to wear a facemask poster for information on how to properly put on and take off a mask.

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Types of masks

Different types of masks include certified respirators (e.g., N95, KN95, or CAN95), certified medical masks (e.g., ASTM F2100, EN 14683), non-medical disposable masks, and cloth masks.

All types of masks help reduce transmission of COVID-19 when they fit comfortably over the mouth and nose with no gaps around the face. 

In settings where a large proportion of the population is at risk for severe outcomes of COVID-19 (e.g. long-term care facilities, shelters), respirators and medical masks may provide better protection than other masks when worn correctly and consistently. 

Choose the mask that is best for you, depending on your ability to comfortably wear it, what you can afford, and your individual risk.

Respirators are certified by national agencies such as the Canadian Standards Association. They usually have a cup shape, flat fold, or duckbill shape. Respirators can filter small particles when they fit closely over the mouth and nose with no gaps around the face.


In healthcare and other workplace settings, respirators are specially fitted to each person, but in public settings, this is not needed. An ideal respirator is comfortable and does not require frequent adjustments. Respirators are available in adult and child sizes. Facial shape, size, and hair can affect the quality of the fit. Respirators with valves allow the breath of the wearer to escape, which could spread infectious particles to others. 


To ensure that respirators have been approved in Canada look for a TC-84A-####n number stamped on the mask, or products marked as meeting the CSA Z94.4.1, GB 2626-2019, KMOEL–2017-64 or EN 149-2001 standards.


These masks are also known as surgical or procedure masks and, like respirators, they are certified by national agencies. They can be made from different materials but commonly have a pleated or folded look and are rectangular when flat. Medical masks are available in adult and child sizes. To improve the fit of medical masks they can be folded, knotted, worn with a mask fitter, or worn with a cloth mask overtop.


To ensure that medical masks have been approved in Canada look for a medical mask that has ASTM F2100 or EN 14683 on the packaging label.


Non-medical disposable masks often look like certified medical masks, but unlike certified medical masks, they have not been tested by national agencies for filtration effectiveness. As with medical masks, their fit can be improved by knotting ear loops, tucking in the side pieces, wearing under a cloth mask, or using a mask fitter.

Cloth masks can be purchased or homemade. They should be made from three layers of tightly woven, breathable fabric. As with other masks, cloth masks are most effective when they fit comfortably over the mouth and nose, with no gaps around the face. Some cloth masks are designed with a pocket for a filter and may provide more protection when the filter is used. 

 

Face shields do not replace masks but can provide additional protection when worn with a mask.  Mouth shields are not recommended.

When communicating using lip-reading, when visual facial cues are essential, or when people may be unable to wear a mask due to a medical condition a face shield may be an alternative to no mask. 

Some face shields provide better protection than others. When needed, use face shields that wrap around your face and extend below the chin or hooded face shields.

  • Disposable face shields should only be worn once.
  • Reusable face shields should be cleaned and disinfected after each use. 
  • Clear masks that cover the nose and mouth are another option when visual communication is necessary. 


 

When to wear a mask

Wearing a mask in most indoor public spaces is a personal choice. This includes shopping malls, schools, grocery stores, and community centres. 

Masks are still required in some situations like visiting healthcare facilities or on federally-regulated transportation like airplanes or trains.  
  • Masks may also be required for people returning from international travel especially for unvaccinated children aged 5 through 11. Learn more about Government of Canada’s requirements for travellers.
  • Masks are encouraged in some settings like on public transit and BC Ferries.
  • Some businesses, workplaces or events can choose to require that masks be used in their spaces. 
  • Some people may choose to continue to wear a mask because they are more comfortable wearing a mask or because they, or someone in their family, may be at higher risk and want to take extra precautions. Some things to consider:
    • Have you received all recommended doses of vaccine?
    • Will you be in close contact or closed, crowded spaces with other people who are not fully vaccinated?
    • Are you spending time with others outdoors or indoors?
    • Are you at-risk due to age or medical condition?
  • Some people cannot wear a mask due to psychological, behavioural, or physical conditions. Some people may also need to remove their masks to communicate due to a hearing impairment. 
Be respectful of everyone whether they choose to wear a mask or not. It is important to be kind and respectful of other's choices.
Wear a mask if you are ill or caring for someone who is ill
Masks can offer an important layer of protection if someone has symptoms of COVID-19

Children and masks

Do not put a mask or any face covering, including visors and eye protection, on children under two years of age. A mask or face covering will make it difficult for a baby to breathe because their airways are still small. There is also a risk that parts of the mask, visor or eye protection can come off and become a choking hazard. See information about keeping your baby safe during COVID-19 from Perinatal Services BC.

Wearing a mask in indoor public spaces for children two and older is a family choice. Children do not have to wear masks but can safely do so. 


There are smaller versions of respirators, medical masks, non-medical disposable masks, and cloth masks that are designed to fit children. The best mask for your child is one they are able to wear comfortably and properly.

Cleaning and disposing of masks 

Respirators, medical masks, and non-medical disposable masks are typically sold as single-use, but they can be reused until visibly dirty, damp, or damaged. They should not be cleaned because it will damage the protective layers and reduce their effectiveness. Cloth masks should be cleaned frequently. Wet masks are ineffective and should be replaced.

  • Clean your hands before putting on your mask and after taking it off.
  •  Put masks that will not be reused in a garbage bin. 
  • When emptying garbage bins, do not touch used masks or tissues with your hands. 
  • Cloth masks can be washed by hand or in a washing machine. Dry the mask completely before use. Be aware that some fabrics may shrink in the dryer, affecting mask fit. 
  • Any damage, fabric breakdown, or change in fit will reduce the protection of cloth masks.

Environmental impacts of disposable masks

In 2020, an estimated 100 million masks were disposed of in Metro Vancouver alone. Most disposable masks use synthetic fabrics made of plastic. As with other single-use plastics, mask litter can contribute to environmental pollution, clog drains, or cause harm to wildlife. 

To reduce the environmental impacts of disposable masks
  • Reuse your mask as long as it remains dry, visibly free of dirt and degradation, and a good fit can be maintained
  • Ensure masks that are ready for disposal are placed securely in the garbage so they do not end up in waterways or other natural environments 
  • Cut the ear loops before disposing of a mask
  • Check that spare masks (e.g., in the car, backpack, pocket etc.) are held securely until needed to avoid creating accidental mask litter
  • Do not flush masks down the toilet
  • Do not put masks in your municipal composting or recycling bin
  • Some manufacturers offer recycling collection points for used masks in some communities. 


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