Coronavirus: Face mask, face shield, FFP2, N95, KN95 — what's the difference?

  • 2022-10-12
  • 124

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, many countries in the world have introduced mask mandates in public spaces, on local transport and in stores. In Germany, too, everyone must wear some sort of mask when shopping, entering public buildings and offices and riding in trains, buses or cabs.

Still, infection rates continue to rise despite tighter shutdowns. This has likely been triggered by virus variants. Bavaria became the first German state to go one step further: The state government has decided that a simple mask is no longer enough. In the future, masks must be FFP2 mask — known as KN95, N95 or P2 in other parts of the world. Now, other German states are preparing to implement a similar requirements for surgical-grade masks. Here, we explain what the different standards mean. 

Simple face mask

The current regulation in Germany requires a simple face mask to be worn as a minimum requirement in most public areas. This is a piece of cloth that completely covers the mouth and nose. Even a bandanna or scarf would qualify. When you exhale, it inhibits the flow of air and therefore the distance that germs can travel. And this already significantly reduces the risk of infection for other people.

The purpose of such masks is not to protect the people wearing them from infection: They protect the people everyone else from the wearers' germs. Because transmission is frequently caused by asymptomatic people,  everyone is a potential virus carrier.

The logic behind the mask requirement is therefore: if everyone complies, the overall risk of infection in society will fall.

Cloth masks should be changed frequently and washed in hot water to prevent viruses from surviving. 

Surgical masks 

Such medical face masks  are the professional equivalent of the cloth mask. They consist of thin disposable tissue and fleece and are used by doctors and assistants to primarily to prevent their patients on operating tables from being infected with germs and pathogens.. If the wearer of the mask coughs or sneezes, for example, most of the droplets from the mouth and throat get caught in the mask. 

This only works if the mask is changed regularly and disposed of hygienically and safely. In surgery, doctors must change their mask at least every two hours. If a mask of this type is worn repeatedly, it quickly loses its effectiveness. 

During the pandemic, higher-quality masks with better filtration  have become the standard practically everywhere in the medical profession. 

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