Nearly six months after the coronavirus overturned our lives, the face mask has finally, unequivocally, arrived. Until now, it’s had an image problem, but that thinking is shifting, fast. Amid growing evidence that the virus is transmitted through the air, refusing to wear one, particularly indoors, is increasingly becoming a social no-no – not to mention risky. The hashtag #wearadamnmask has been trending on both sides of the Atlantic for good reason.
But look around, and you will see that people are confused. When do you wear one? Why haven’t some politicians been covering up? Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon has a nice line in tartan masks, but Donald Trump and recovered Covid-19 patient Boris Johnson had resisted wearing them until very recently. Just last week, chancellor Rishi Sunak was criticised for serving Wagamama customers mask-less, a good-news photo opp that backfired. Yet, according to the Hlcarpenter.com’s fashion editor Jess Cartner-Morley, face coverings “are the biggest thing to happen to the optics of our lives in a long time”, and for many of us a radical change to the face we present to the world. (Niqab wearers have always covered up, though you need to wear a mask under their highly breathable fabric, too.) Masks will be with us for as long as coronavirus is – and if they’re not ubiquitous this summer, you can bet they will be this autumn.
What are the rules? In the UK, masks are currently compulsory on public transport, and in shops in Scotland (England follows suit from 24 July); meanwhile the World Health Organization (WHO) advises people wear one in any situation where social distancing isn’t possible. But beyond this official guidance, there are many unanswered questions. Should I wear one at work? How do I communicate better while wearing one? Do I need to rethink my hair and makeup, and is this the end of the beard? We’ve answered these burning questions, and more.
Do I really need one?
Absolutely, according to Jeremy Howard, research scientist at the University of San Francisco and co-founder of campaigning group Masks 4 All, who has been analysing mask-wearing data since February. Unless you’re outside, and unlikely to spend more than five minutes in the company of someone closer than six feet, you need a mask.
“Masks and social distancing are our strongest tools in fighting the virus,” he says. “The virus is transmitted through droplets of saliva, so a mask will always decrease the radius of those droplets. This is why opening pubs while the virus is still circulating is a terrible idea – you are usually talking straight at someone for a good length of time, so there’s a continuous spray of droplets. If you’re not wearing a mask, either indoors or out, you’re taking a huge risk.”
Fabric masks, if they’re made from the right material and fit properly, are the best type of non-medical mask to wear, he says. “They can be 95% effective – you need two layers of a tight weave cotton; and if you can, a layer of paper towel or kitchen roll between the layers. As the paper is not woven [ie, there are no gaps], it’s one of the best materials you can use.
“It’s important to fit it snugly over the nose. Use a pipe cleaner, or rolled up piece of foil, or paper clip in the top seam to mould the mask round your nose; and make sure it covers your chin completely. Often, masks that tie round the back of your head are better than ear loops as they fit more tightly. Surgical or disposable paper masks are usually a less good fit, and less breathable.”
You should always wear one in a shop, says Howard: “It’s as much about protecting the workers from your droplets.” Elsewhere, use your common sense. “If a bus stop isn’t overly sheltered or covered, and you can keep six feet away from others, then you don’t need to wear a mask. Most laws around the world are saying you should wear one indoors in public, or outdoors when you can’t socially distance. I would add – if you can’t socially distance ‘for some time’.”
Workplaces, particularly offices, are high-risk environments for transmission, he says. Along with other measures, such as ventilation, distancing and talking quietly, wearing a mask is recommended. “Nothing is perfectly safe, but if everyone wears a mask, people are over six feet apart (including during meetings), loud speech, yawning, coughing and shouting are avoided, and you regularly move around the office, the spread of the virus will be greatly reduced. For all-day use, a breathable mask is important. If it gets wet from sweat or humidity, bring a second one to use as a replacement.”
There is an art to wearing a mask. Charlotte Waite, a practising dentist and chair of the England Community Dental Services Committee, has worn a disposable surgical mask for years at work. “Wash your hands or use a hand gel, and pick up a clean mask by its loops,” she advises. “The inside is usually a lighter colour. Make sure it’s the right way up – there is a harder ridge at the top. Mould this over the bridge of your nose, pushing outwards. Tuck the bottom of your mask under your chin – you’re trying to achieve no gaps. If you do touch your mask, just wash your hands after.”
Glasses wearers often complain about fogging up, but there is a knack to this. “Take them off first, fit the mask, then put them back on – they should sit on top of the mask. If the mask fits well, your glasses shouldn’t steam up.”
According to a 2011 paper published by the Royal College of Surgeons, immediately before wearing a face mask you should wash your glasses with soapy water, and shake off the excess. Let the spectacles air dry or gently dry with a tissue before putting them back on.
Surgical masks are designed to be thrown away after every use. “Put it in a bin or, if you’re out and about, in a plastic bag, and throw both the mask and bag away when you get home. If it gets damp, say from your breath, dispose of it immediately and put a new one on. If you’re using a fabric face covering, wash it after every use. If you’re out, either put it in a plastic bag to carry home or, for less waste, in a small canvas bag and put both in the wash.”
People can feel hot or claustrophobic in a mask, she says, but once you get used to them you will start to relax. “Try not to unhook them or pull them under your chin or off your nose. Either wear it properly or take it off.”
It’s useful to have at least three face coverings if they are reusable. According to the WHO, you should change them when they get dirty or wet, so always carry a spare in a sealable bag. The WHO advises you wash your fabric mask at least once a day – so follow the wash one, dry one, wear one rule.
Can I mask-monitor other people? What are the social rules here?
We are all comfortable with different levels of risk; with mask-wearing comes a whole new register of social niceties. When is it polite to wear one, even if it’s not the law? “In towns and cities, where it’s difficult to avoid others, get into the habit of masking up, at least for now,” says etiquette expert, Debora Robertson, co-author of Manners: A Modern Field Guide (out next spring). “Not wearing one is like littering – an outward sign that you expect others to be the grownups. It’s a small price to pay for moving around more freely, and if you hate it, oh well – people once moaned about wearing seatbelts.”
What’s the etiquette of meeting someone socially when they’re wearing a mask and you’re not? “If you don’t have one, respect their caution by keeping your distance,” Robertson says. “If you’re wearing one and your friend isn’t, don’t feel pressured to remove yours. Never ridicule anyone for wearing a mask and conversely, don’t mask-monitor others. Don’t berate people who aren’t wearing them, just move along, if for no other reason than that confrontation might result in them getting closer than you’d like.
“Wear one when you’re in close proximity to others – at markets, the school gates, in shops. Understandably, a lot of people don’t want to wear masks when exercising outside. If you feel you really can’t, make sure you give other people a wide berth. In restaurants and bars, wear your mask when moving about. Keep it on while your order is being taken. Of course take it off to eat and drink, but replace it when you get up to leave or go to the loo.”
Wearing masks makes it more difficult to read non-verbal cues, she adds. “Remember to smile with your eyes, and to say please and thank you. The more of us who wear masks, the more normal it becomes. If we think of it as a generous and thoughtful thing to do, it begins to feel like a very small burden.”
How should I choose my mask: what’s the most flattering style?
Think of a face mask like the hat in a Christmas cracker. Embrace the good-hearted spirit behind it, fix your hair and keep your chin up.
Shaking off any residual British awkwardness is the key to pulling off a mask in any style. Start by taking a long look at yourself in the mirror. A mask changes your face more radically than a new haircut or hair colour, or new glasses. Try on any different masks you have, and experiment by holding paler and darker scarves around the bottom half of your face, to see which shades suit you and which make you look shadowed and tired. If your masks have ribbons, then tie them firmly in place so you have permanent ear loops and snip off the excess – otherwise the ends will go rogue and stick out from your hair.
When I bought my first batch, my instinct was to look for cheery fabrics and colours. We read masks as a danger sign, so I wanted to offset this. But having road tested jazzy colours and prints, I settled on plain white or black for the same reason I always fall back on plain black or white swimwear: when I’m out of my sartorial comfort zone, monochrome makes me feel less in the spotlight. Stretchy black ones work best for everyday (try Mango’s simple black design, £12.99 for a pack of two); I have a few smarter crisp, linen-white ones (try Edeline Lee’s Spunbond masks, £40 for a pack of three). The general rule is to apply your usual aesthetic filters to mask-wearing. If you enjoy wearing colourful scarves near your face (I don’t), then do try a printed mask.
Dark glasses with a dark mask is tricky to pull off without looking like a cartoon villain. My sunglasses tip is to copy supermodel Karlie Kloss, who I saw photographed as a guest at a socially-distanced wedding, wearing a white shirt dress and white mask with black sunglasses, her hair pulled neatly back. In dark glasses, contrast with a paler mask is key; so is wearing your hair up. When so much of your face is covered, exposing your jaw and neckline can soften and humanise.
Fashion editor Jess Cartner‑Morley
How can I communicate effectively through my mask?
“We process information best when we can see the whole face, rather than individual features such as eyes, nose and mouth separately,” says Rebecca Brewer, senior lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London, whose research includes the recognition of emotion and identity from faces. “If we can’t do this, it can be harder to read someone’s emotions, or even recognise them.”
Each horizontal half of the face, one dominated by the eyes and the other by the mouth, affects the other – known as the composite face effect, Brewer explains. In other words, what you’re doing with your mouth will change the way your eyes look. “Anger is especially communicated by the eye region,” says Brewer, “whereas other emotions are communicated better by the mouth – such as happiness and disgust. Still, people should be able to tell when we are smiling, as genuine smiles come with ‘creased’ eyes (known by psychologists as a Duchenne smile). Smiles which are posed tend to be displayed more by the mouth.”
Losing these cues will have an effect on our social interactions. “We can usually tell if someone we’re talking to is, say, getting bored,” says Brewer, “so we adapt our behaviour. Wearing a mask makes these simple interactions harder, particularly when we’re with people we don’t know so well, or are meeting for the first time. It becomes harder still to pick up more subtle emotions – such as when someone is mildly amused, rather than laughing hysterically.”
Women who already cover their faces with a niqab in public are used to all of these interactions. Dareen, who lives in Saudi Arabia, used to wear one but stopped as it exacerbated her asthma, particularly in summer. “When you’re wearing a niqab, even your eyebrows are covered, so you use your eyes, your hands and your tone of voice to express yourself,” she says. Wearing a niqab offers no protection against Covid-19 as the fabric is highly breathable, and they should be worn with a face mask underneath in public. Dareen worries that not enough women are doing this, particularly in enclosed spaces like shopping malls. “You can usually tell if someone is wearing a mask underneath. If they’re not, I keep away.”
Dr Anna Piela, an academic and author of Wearing The Niqab (out next January), has reinterviewed some of her contributors since the start of the pandemic. Many told her they have found greater acceptance now that more people are covering up, she says. Loubna (a pseudonym) from Birmingham, says: “I went to a park the other day, and it felt completely different. Usually people do a double-take when they see me there with my kids, but this time, everyone was wearing a mask. There was an expectation that your face would be covered, and my niqab was just one other way of fulfilling that expectation. I felt inconspicuous, and it was so refreshing.”
When paying greater attention to other cues, such as facial expressions and body language, we can learn a lot from performers, says Welsh theatre actor, Caroline Sheen. “Silent movie stars like Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin perfected the art of expressing emotion through gestures,” she says. “Exaggerated eyebrow movements, heavy eyeliner, head tilts, putting your hands to your head – these all emphasise what you’re trying to say.”
When it comes to wearing a mask, it helps to understand your own face better. “We actors study our faces a lot. Look hard at yours in the mirror, and work out how it reacts. For example, I frown a lot naturally, so I’ve learned to overcompensate for that by smiling more.” Meanwhile Sheen’s own profession may rely on more face coverings, at least in the near future. “We project our voices, we sing – and that’s hazardous when it comes to the spread of the virus.”
As for “smizing” or smiling with your eyes, models – specifically Tyra Banks, who coined the term nearly a decade ago – are the real experts. According to Banks, you relax your mouth, think of something or someone you love, and squint with a fierce intensity. If that comes across a bit too Melania Trump, then soften it slightly, creasing your eyes.
Should I wear more or less makeup? And what should I do with my beard?
There’s an old beauty industry cliche about how, in times of crisis, lipstick sales hold steady as women buy little luxuries for cheer and paint on a brave face for fortitude. Coronavirus may just be the first crisis where lipstick may prove more trouble than it’s worth, smudging messily under face coverings, staining masks and sticking to fabric.
There’s an argument for ditching it altogether. “This is just not the time for makeup on the bottom third of the face,” says Val Garland, makeup artist and judge on the BBC reality show Glow Up. “It’s better to keep the lower skin clean, fresh and moisturised.” She is forgoing foundation as well, dabbing concealer only where needed. If going base-free is a bridge too far for you, try a facial self-tanner before bed instead. It evens tone, gives skin a healthy glow and doesn’t rub off. When your PPE comes on and off constantly for speaking and eating, makeup will ultimately just wipe away and dirty your mask.
After several years of a focus on skin, Garland and most experts agree that for the rest of this year at least, the eyes have it. “I was on my first post-Covid photoshoot the other day,” says Garland, “and we were all wearing masks. It was remarkable how much more attention I paid to my colleagues’ eyes, in order to read what they were thinking, how they were feeling. It’s a great time to make the most of that gazing. Always have good brows – they’re the first thing anyone will see, especially now. They define the eyes. And wear lots of mascara, top and bottom.” Try L’Oréal Paris’s Paradise Extatic Mascara (£11.99), which gives length and volume without making lashes brittle and clumpy, and is extraordinarily well-behaved.
Garland advises reaching first for the eyelash curlers to really open up the eyes. She uses a grey or black eyeliner (brown suits me better) to line tightly top and bottom, then takes an angled brush and smudges upwards, softening any hard lines. But don’t be too hasty in banishing the lipstick. What used to be for going out is now for staying in, Garland says: save it for Zoom.
For men, particularly those with beards, prolonged mask-wearing can irritate the skin. Hairstylist and groomer Jon Chapman suggests an antibacterial face wash and a colloidal silver antibacterial gel to calm any inflammation down, and beard oil to soften the hair. Chapman, who has a beard, has been wearing Falke’s unisex face mask.
Pharmacist Gareth Thomas wears a fluid-resistant mask for work, but was advised to shave his full beard off. “The advice is that facial hair mustn’t cross the edge of the mask. So goatees and moustaches are fine, as long as they are contained within the mask. I opted for a goatee – but it rubs against the mask and pulls it down when I’m talking.” Going clean-shaven might be your best option.
Beauty editor Sali Hughes
Do I need a specialist mask?
Different types of mask offer different levels of protection, with the evidence on any, other than surgical masks, still emerging. Surgical grade N95 respirators offer the highest level of protection, followed by surgical grade masks (also known as “medical” masks, ie those with several layers of protection). However, these masks are costly, in limited supply, contribute to landfill and are uncomfortable to wear for long periods, so they are generally reserved for healthcare workers, or those at particularly high risk. The WHO also advises these be worn by people over 60, or those with underlying health conditions, where social distancing isn’t possible.
It’s worth seeking your doctor’s advice if you’re concerned about a health condition such as asthma. Jessica Kirby, Asthma UK’s head of health advice, says most sufferers won’t have a problem wearing a mask: “They won’t do any damage – and if you feel fine wearing one, you are fine. But for some, it may make them feel like they can’t catch a breath – and that anxiety will make their breathing worse. If that happens, take the mask off. My advice is to try out a few different types, and go for a walk around the block wearing them.”