New mask guidelines: How to choose the right mask

Whether we like it or not, masks are here to stay…or at least till the pandemic ends. While they’re here to protect us and prevent the spread of the virus, updated guidelines for fabric masks published by the Department of Trade and Industry on October 5 2020, show that NOT all masks offer the protection we need. The guidelines were produced for South Africa’s clothing and textile manufacturing industry.

Wearing the correct mask not only helps prevent transmission of the virus – it also lowers the risk of contracting the virus from contaminated surfaces, because wearing a mask stops us from touching our faces, which we know we should not do. 

There is also some evidence that masks can protect the wearer, too. For example, a recent paper published in the Journal for General Internal Medicine in August found that masks can reduce the amount of viral particles the wearer inhales, which may reduce the severity of the illness should the wearer contract Covid. 

The bottom line is: more masks = less infectious droplets going around and less Covid-19.

INFOGRAPHIC: How to choose the right mask

Here are a couple of things you should consider before buying or sewing your next mask. 


a) Cloth and fabric masks 

Turns out those fabric and cloth masks we’re all wearing don’t actually prevent us from contracting the virus, especially from those tiny droplets lingering in the air when someone speaks, coughs or sneezes. But, a durable and highly specialised filter hidden in between the triple-layered mask will do the job, as that traps the tiny viral particles that can infect us (more on this below).

b) Fabric masks with breathing valves 

These masks are a HUGE NO-NO. According to the DTI, the fabric face masks with valves or vents  are not actually useful. Why? Well, they allow air to be exhaled through an opening in the material, and if the person wearing the mask is infected, they’re potentially spreading the virus. Basically, they don’t provide the required barrier to prevent the spread of Covid-19. 

The DTI says: “These breathing vent/valve fabric face masks defeat the purpose and it is recommended that these types of face masks not to be worn or sold within the Republic of South Africa.”

c) Fabric neck gaiter

These are those stretchy, thin tubes of fabric worn around the neck. It’s something you’d wear to prevent getting teargassed at a protest. But, we’re not dealing with teargas right now (most of us, anyway). We’re dealing with a virus, and the thin material does very little to prevent the virus from passing through. The DTI says that these neck buffs offer little to no prevention and should NOT actually be seen as one of the protective mechanisms against Covid-19. 

“…as current research indicates that they offer little to no support in preventing respiratory droplets being expelled and reaching others,” the statement reads. 

d) Medical grade surgical masks 

Since there is a global shortage of medical masks, the DTI says the general public should try to avoid using these critical resources. They should be reserved for frontline healthcare workers who do need it most. But they are one of the more effective masks out there.

So, what actually makes a good, protective mask?

A triple layered mask that provides comfort, protection and breathability. Remember: the design and fabric should be mindful of the fabric becoming hot and moist while in use. The wrong material can cause skin irritation, the build-up of heat or moisture, or the incubation of bacteria, causing wearers to remove masks in situations when they should be wearing them (all the time).

The inner layer (the one against your face)

  • The fabric should be smooth, soft and comfortable on the skin. It should not allow the build-up of moisture or excessive heat against the skin. 
  • Synthetic fibres are recommended such as plain weaves (lightweight, low count), warp knit polyester ‘mesh’; lightweight single jersey, spunbond nonwoven fabric, which provide sufficient air permeability and is washable. 
  • Cotton, poly-cotton or viscose can also be used but care should be taken as these materials can become wet against the skin. 

The middle layer (the replaceable filter)

  • It should have a barrier efficiency of at least 75% but still allow breathability.
  • The filter should be durable, replaceable (filter inserted in a pocket) and can be washed with hot water or disinfected.
  • Minimum filter size 100mm x 120mmm
  • Filter fabric should ideally be non-woven or similarly performing fabric that traps the viral particles. 

The outer layer

  • This layer can be woven, warp-knitted or made from a suitable nonwoven fabric. 
  • The fabric should not allow liquids to move THROUGH them – they should therefore be water repellent. 
  • The fabric should still enable normal breathing. 
  • The fabric must suit the design of the mask and it should be firm to avoid slipping down the face. 

P.S. If a filter layer is not used, the combination of the two layers must offer protection against the tiny viral particles and be at least 75% efficient.


a) Fit 

Make sure your mask fits you – it shouldn’t slide off your face and expose your nose or hang off your chin. A well-fitted mask will closely contour the face, especially around the nose bridge and under the chin to reduce leakage out and into the mask. Basically, like any other garment, it must fit your face properly. 

b) Durability

Reusable masks should have high durability – meaning that they do not lose their effectiveness after one or two washes. Depending on the material, the lifespan of a reusable mask differs (this should be indicated on the product packaging) but the DTI indicates that components that are not removable should be resistant to at least 100 wash cycles. To add to this, the DTI says the mask should be easy to wash or disinfect at home. 

c) Breathability 

If a mask has too many layers, you, as the wearer, might have difficulty breathing and this is also risky. The DTI says that’s because you can become oxygen-deprived (we don’t want you fainting), but also the discomfort will increase one’s need to touch their face and remove or adjust the mask during wear, increasing the risk of transmission. We must remember that the whole point of a mask is to keep it on your face, so it should be as comfortable as possible.


Masks should be used in combination with other preventative methods like personal hand hygiene, sanitising and physical (social) distancing of at least 1.6m. Wearing a mask does not guarantee that you won’t contract the virus, but it can reduce the risk, some research has shown. Remember to avoid touching your mask and face, disinfect your hands before putting it on and after removing it. Store it in a bag until you can wash it. And finally, if getting the right mask is beyond your budget and capacity, keep whichever mask you have, because a simple mask is better than no mask. 

Support local 

The DTI has compiled a list of local manufacturers and suppliers of woven fabrics and textiles across the country. Click on this link to get in touch with the manufacturers and textile suppliers in your area. 

Be safe and be cautious. 

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