COVID-19: Use of face masks in the community

Information on the use of face masks in the community including how they can help protect you.

Last updated: 12 August 2022

Free face masks are being provided in the community to help stop the spread of COVID-19 and to protect people who are at highest risk of severe illness from COVID-19. You do not need to have COVID-19 or have COVID-19 symptoms to get free masks. 

Free masks can be sourced through participating healthcare providers, community organisations and when people collect rapid antigen tests (RAT) from some collection sites. Find RAT collection sites that provide masks on Healthpoint.

Both medical masks and P2/N95 particulate respirator masks are available, with P2/N95 masks being prioritised for people at highest risk from getting very sick from COVID-19.

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Wearing face masks help stop infections from spreading between people. They protect you and other people around you from getting COVID-19, the flu or other illnesses.

They are an important way of protecting our most vulnerable people who have a high risk of getting very sick from COVID-19.

The Ministry urges people to wear a mask in public indoor settings outside the home and in poorly ventilated spaces, or when it is hard to physically distance from other people.

Even if you’re fully vaccinated, or have had COVID-19 before, continuing to wear a face mask is important to help keep you, your whanau and your community safe.

The more layers of protection people put in place - such as mask wearing, vaccinations, and staying home when sick - the more they reduce the risk of spreading respiratory viruses.

To protect everyone, we should all wear a good quality mask that fits us well and is comfortable to wear.

Find further guidance on settings when face masks must be worn under the COVID-19 Protection Framework and other resources on masks on the Unite against COVID-19 website.


How masks prevent spread of COVID-19

Wearing masks can minimise the direct spread of the virus through particles in the air. Read more about How COVID-19 spreads.

Masks help to prevent spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 in two ways:

  • decreasing the amount of virus spread by an infectious person by catching the particles containing virus in the mask (source control).
  • helping to prevent a person from inhaling particles containing virus (wearer protection).

The best protection from infection occurs when everyone is wearing a mask. The combination of source control AND wearer protection is much more effective than just one or the other.

This image compares the risk of transmission of COVID-19 when a person who has COVID doesn't wear a mask (very high risk), where the person they talking to has a mask on (high), and when both people have a mask (low risk).

  • How well a mask protects you depends on how well it fits to your face and how well it filters the air.
  • Find the mask that best fits to cover your nose, mouth, and chin without gaps above, below or on the sides.
  • Wear the mask consistently and correctly according to any relevant instructions for its use. 

Types of face masks

Masks and respirators can provide different levels of protection depending on the type of mask and how they are used. However, any mask is better than no mask.

Key things to consider when choosing a mask to wear are:

  • your risk of infection in any particular situation
  • how well the mask fits you
  • the filtration ability of the material
  • comfort of the mask 

Note that dust masks or masks that have exhalation valves are not recommended as they have a one-way valve, which allows particles to escape if an infected person coughs or sneezes.

Fabric reusable masks

Reusable fabric masks are made from material that can be washed and dried and re-used. The effectiveness of fabric/cloth masks is highly variable and depends on the style and materials used.

Reusable fabric masks work best when they:

  • consist of several layers – three is recommended. This will help contain the respiratory particles within the mask and better prevent other people’s respiratory particles getting in.
  • are made of material that ensures ease of breathing, filtration, and provides a good fit. Finely woven material is better than loosely woven fabric.
  • have an additional ‘filter layer’ in the middle, and a nose bridge wire to help mould the mask to your face.

Taking care of a reusable mask is important. Have enough washable face masks so each person in your family can wear one and wash one. Check for ‘wear and tear’, making sure there are no holes or thinning out of the material, and the ties or elastic loops to keep the mask in place are still in good condition.

For extra protection you can wear a disposable medical mask under your fabric mask.

Fabric reusable masks can be purchased through a variety of retail stores, online or, you can learn how to make your own mask on the Unite against COVID-19 website.

Disposable medical masks

A certified well-fitting medical mask offers a good level of protection. They are designed for single use by health care workers and can be used by the public. These masks are usually a blue pleated rectangle (or in other colours) with a nose wire and elastic ear loops.

The terms ‘medical’, ‘surgical’, and ‘procedural’ are all often used to refer to these masks. For use in health care, the masks must comply to specific standards within New Zealand (e.g. AS 4381:2015) or an international equivalent standard to ensure they meet a suitable barrier rating. Some disposable masks may not be certified to medical mask standards.

Disposable medical masks can be purchased from retail stores such as supermarkets or pharmacies. Free medical masks are now available for you to pick up.

Disposable P2/N95 particulate respirators

Disposable high-filtration masks or particulate respirators generally offer the highest level of protection, when used correctly.

Particulate respirator masks range in model, price, availability and suitability. They are identified by which international regulatory standards they meet.  For example, N95 is a US standard, KN95 is a Chinese standard, and P2 is a New Zealand/Australian respiratory standard.

In New Zealand P2/N95 particulate respirator masks are used by healthcare staff who are at highest risk of infection, especially those who are looking after COVID-19 patients.

Some members of the public may choose to wear respirator masks for extra protection. Free P2/N95 masks are now available for you to pick up.

There are specific tests used in industries and health care settings to ensure that a respirator is providing the best protection.

This includes:

  • ‘fit testing’, a process to ensure that the make, style or model of the respirator fits tightly against the wearers face.
  • ‘fit checking’ (or user seal checking), done by a person each time they put their selected respirator on. This is similar to checking swimming goggles to ensure that there are no gaps against the face.

Instructions for how to put on and fit check a P2/N95 mask are further below.

If the correct procedures for using a P2/N95 mask are not used, these masks are not that much better at preventing infection than a well-fitting medical mask.


Face masks for children

Choose a mask for children that fits them best, is comfortable to wear and can be worn consistently. The mask should cover their nose, mouth, and chin without gaps above, below or on the sides.

This can be a reusable fabric mask (three layers is recommended) or a medical disposable mask. Many fabric masks (either purchased or made) come in child sizes. 

For commonly available medical masks, there are techniques that can be used to improve the fit to a child’s face such as knot and tuck (see more below).


How to use a facemask safely

When wearing a mask, whether it’s one you purchase or made yourself, you need to know how to use it correctly and safely to avoid the risk of infection. Wear a good quality mask that fits you well and is comfortable to wear.

Kia ora koutou katoa, well winter is now upon us and we're seeing the pressure that's causing on our health system.

One of the things that we can all do is to wear a mask.

Now masks help to protect you from getting infected, but importantly they also help to protect other people, our older people, people who might be immunocompromised for example if they're having treatment for cancer and of course our young children and babies.

A good rule of thumb is to always wear a mask in an indoor environment outside of your home, just to keep safe.

One of the things we're seeing is that people who've already had COVID-19, like myself think they don't need to wear a mask anymore because they won't infect other people or they won't get infected themselves.

In fact we are seeing people who have had COVID-19 previously getting re-infected and also remember that you are susceptible to those other winter viruses that are circulating especially the flu, which we know is wide spread in our community.

I'm just going to show you now how to put a mask on correctly, first of all sanitise your hands just to make sure that you're getting rid of any bugs or germs that might be on that.

Second, grab your mask by the loops, now you can see here I've got a very common cheap medical mask, you might be using a cloth mask and many of us have got those as well.

The important thing with any mask is to make sure that it's well fitting, in terms of putting the mask on, put the loops over your ears first of all and then pinch at the nose here and grab just the bottom and pull that down under your chin.

If you push nice and firmly on this wire that's in the top here then just check the sides and make sure it's nice and well fitting around the sides and bingo there you are ready to go.

Thank you Aotearoa for all the work you have done and that you continue to do to protect New Zealanders from COVID-19.

Keep up the mask wearing, it will help us all get through winter in great shape, kia ora.

 

Practice good hygiene

  • Ensure your face mask is clean and dry, and is not damaged.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water then dry them thoroughly, or use hand sanitiser before putting on your mask.
  • Avoid touching the front of the mask while you are wearing it.
  • If you need to adjust your mask, do so and then clean your hands afterwards.
  • Change your face mask if it becomes damp, damaged or dirty.
  • After use, remove your mask carefully to avoid contaminating your hands and store or dispose of it safely in a rubbish bin, not a recycling bin.
  • Clean your hands after removing your mask.
  • Do not disinfect single-use disposable face masks.
  • Never share face masks with other people.
Using a medical mask

When worn correctly, medical masks will provide you with protection from COVID-19, the flu or other illnesses.

To work properly, your medical mask needs to fit well and have no gaps around the edges of the mask.

It is important that you learn how to put a medical mask on correctly to make sure you’re protected. Follow these steps for how to put on your medical mask and to check that it is fitting well:

  1. Clean your hands.
  2. Check the mask isn’t damaged, dirty or wet.
  3. Hold the mask by the elastic ear loops on each side.
  4. Bring the mask up to your face to cover your nose, mouth and chin.
  5. Hook the elastic loops behind your ears.
  6. Pinch the mask around your nose and hold it in place. Using your other hand, grab the bottom of the mask and pull it down under your chin.
  7. Fit the mask well to your face, pushing down firmly along your nose and cheeks.
  8. Check the edges of the mask to make sure it’s fitting well and there are no big gaps.

You can improve the fit of your medical mask by:

  • tying small knots in the ear loop elastic,
  • if you have your own fabric mask, you can put it over the top of a medical mask, or
  • consider shaving or trimming facial hair to achieve a better level of fit.

Removing a medical mask

Follow these steps for how to take off and throw away your medical mask safely:

  1. Remove the mask by unhooking the ear loops.
  2. Dispose of mask in a rubbish bin, not in a recycling bin.
  3. Clean your hands.

View poster on how to put on an take off a medical mask (Unite against COVID-19)

Using a P2/N95 particulate respirator mask

 

When worn correctly, P2/N95 masks will best protect people who have a higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19. Find information on who may benefit from wearing a P2/N95 mask here: https://www.health.govt.nz/covid-19-novel-coronavirus/covid-19-informati...

To work properly:

  • The P2/N95 needs to fit very closely to your face so there are no gaps around the edges of the mask.
  • Your nose, mouth and chin must be covered.
  • No air should leak from the edges of the mask when you breath out.
  • Jewellery, glasses and facial hair can cause gaps between your face and the sides of the mask. A r P2/N95 mask works better if you are clean shaven.

If wearing a P2/N95 mask is the right option for you, to be protected it is important that you learn how to put one on correctly. Check the instructions for your model of mask.

Follow these steps for how to put on your P2/N95 mask and check that it fits tightly to your face:

  1. Clean your hands.
  2. Check the mask isn’t damaged, dirty or wet.
  3. Hold the mask in your hand with the nose wire at the ends of your fingers and the elastic straps hanging down.
  4. Bring the mask up to your face, with the bottom edge of mask under your chin and the nose wire at the top, covering your nose, mouth and chin.
  5. Pull the top strap over your head, placing it above your ears. Then, pull the bottom strap over your head, placing it at the back of your neck and below your ears. Do not crisscross the straps.
  6. Fit the mask well to your face, pushing down firmly along your nose and cheeks.
  7. Check the edges of the mask for gaps. Place your hands on the mask (cupping the sides) covering as many edges of the mask as possible, then breathe out.
  8. No air should leak from the edges. Check for gaps every time you put on your P2/N95 mask.

Removing a P2/N95 mask

Follow these steps for how to take off and throw away your P2/N95 mask safely:

  1. Pull the straps up and over your head.
  2. Dispose of mask in a rubbish bin, not in a recycling bin.
  3. Clean your hands.

View the poster on how to put on and take off P2/N95 safely (Unite against COVID-19).

See more information on the use of medical masks and P2/N95 particulate respirators in health care settings.

Using a cloth mask

Follow these steps

  1. Clean your hands.
  2. Check the mask isn’t damaged, dirty or wet.
  3. Hold the mask by the elastic ear loops on each side.
  4. Bring the mask up to your face to cover your nose, mouth and chin.
  5. Hook the elastic loops behind your ears.
  6. Make sure the mask fully covers your nose, mouth and chin. It should fit snugly, moulded to your face and around your nose.
  7. Your mask should be comfortable, with no gaps around the mask and your face, and allow you to breathe easily.
  8. Tuck excess material from your face mask to reduce any gaps around the side of your face.

You can improve the fit and effectiveness of a fabric mask by:

  • using masks that have a ‘nose bridge wire’ included – this helps mould the mask across the bridge of your nose.
  • increasing the number of layers in your mask. If you are making your own mask include three layers.
  • wearing a disposable medical mask underneath your fabric mask (wearing two disposable medical masks will not improve fit).
  • shaving or trimming facial hair to achieve a better level of fit.

For further guidance visit the Unite Against COVID-19 website.

Washing cloth face masks

  • Wash fabric masks to highest temperature material can withstand with detergent and water either by hand or in a washing machine.
  • After putting the mask in the washing machine, clean your hands with soap and water or use hand sanitiser (containing at least 60 percent alcohol). Ensure your hands are dry.
  • Dry the mask completely before you use it again. Do not use a damp mask.

Safely disposing of single-use face masks

  • Carefully remove your disposable mask to avoid contaminating your hands and store or dispose of it safely after use.
  • Place used face masks and gloves into household or public rubbish bins for safe disposal at landfills.
  • Do not dispose of used face masks in household or public recycling bins.

Read more on the Ministry for Environment website.


Resources/information on masks


Temporary removal of a face mask

There are times when you may need to remove your mask temporarily. Remember to wash or sanitise your hands before removing your mask and putting it back on and store it in a safe place while you are not using it.

In situations where wearing a mask is a legal requirement, you can remove your mask for short periods of time for the following reasons: 

  • when eating, drinking or taking medication
  • if you are someone who relies on New Zealand Sign Language and/or reading people's facial expressions, including lip reading, or need to communicate with someone who does, you can remove your mask or face covering to communicate, but you must maintain a physical distance of two metres
  • if wearing a mask or face covering in the workplace would create a risk to your health and safety, as determined through Health and Safety guidelines
  • in indoor environments where the mask or face covering is likely to get wet
  • as requested by medical or oral health professionals
  • in any situation where wearing a mask or face covering may provide a choking hazard, such as changing clothes
Face masks for deafblind people

 

We understand some people who have a disability or health condition may not be able to wear a face mask safely or comfortably, and that wearing a face mask is unsuitable in some circumstances due to the need for lipreading. 

In general, you should wear a face mask whenever you can. The Omicron variants are more transmissible and face masks an important way we can protect ourselves and each other. Where possible you must maintain a physical distance of at least one metre when you cannot wear a face mask.

If you need to remove your mask to communicate with a person who is deaf, hard of hearing or who is deafblind, you can. In a residential care setting you should discuss your requirements, and the requirements of staff and other residents, with the service provider before your visit.


People who can't wear face masks

While masks are currently mandatory in a range of settings, this doesn’t apply to people with a physical or sensory disability, mental health or other health condition that makes wearing a face mask unsuitable.

People who can’t wear a mask need to access businesses and services, including education, just like everyone else.

Find more information including applying for an exemption card at people who are unable to wear a face mask.


Information for businesses

Businesses need to ensure they don’t discriminate against people who are exempt from wearing a face mask.

If you are a business, you have a right to query whether people are unable to wear a face mask but should do so appropriately and be aware that no one has to share personal information with you. If someone tells you they are unable to wear one, it’s best if you take them at their word.

If an exchange about face mask requirements escalates, businesses should apply their usual conflict resolution process.

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