Last updated on 04/02/2020

What you need to know about facemasks

There are many different types of facemasks on the market, but some are more effective than others. With the current poor air quality conditions many are seeking the refuge of masks to help reduce exposure to harmful toxins, due to the bushfires across the country and the smoke that is continually filling our skies. There are a few things you need to know about bushfire smoke and how the use of a mask can be effective.

Bushfire smoke and PM2.5

Bushfires can produce extremely poor air quality  and cause adverse effects to health and well-being. Smoke contains gases and particles (matter). The particulate matter that we are most concerned about is PM2.5 and PM10. These particles, are tiny in size and when inhaled can go deep into the lungs, entering the blood stream typically causing inflammation and affecting the respiratory, cardiovascular and immune systems and in some cases, changing some metabolic functions.1 Anyone can be affected by smoke, resulting in irritated airways, nose and eyes. But some groups are more vulnerable than others such as pregnant women, infants and children, the elderly and those living with respiratory conditions such as asthma, emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), type 2 diabetes or cardiovascular diseases like angina or heart failure.

Whilst the long- term effects of PM2.5 are unknown, we do know that there is no safe level of exposure.

Why P2 facemasks over any other mask?

Disposable P2/N95 facemasks (also known as P2/N95 respirators) help to filter out very fine particles from the air when worn correctly, with a perfect seal around the nose and mouth. Other masks, such as surgical masks, will not filter out PM2.5 particles.

Who can use them?

P2 masks are not recommended for general community use, they can provide a false sense of security to remain outside for longer than necessary. In the case where you are impacted by poor air quality and bushfire smoke, and you are unable to stay indoors and are unavoidably exposed, you should consider using a P2 facemask.

P2 facemasks are not recommended for anyone under the age of 14 years, as the mask may not be form fitting (tight fit) and therefore will not be effective.

P2 masks should not be used with facial hair. It is hard for people with facial hair to achieve an effective seal with the mask.

In some cases, people with pre-existing chronic heart and lung conditions may actually find the use of a mask harder to breathe and should consult their doctor before using one.

Where can you buy them?

With the increasing demand, many retailers are starting to stock the P2 mask, you can find them at your local hardware store, Bunnings, Officeworks, local pharmacies, and Woolworths just to name a few. However, it may be best to call ahead to confirm the store has stock available. In the case of an emergency, emergency services and evacuation centres have also been known to have stock and distribute.

How to wear a P2 facemask 

People with beards should shave before using a P2 mask as a good seal between the mask and the wearer’s face cannot be guaranteed if they have facial hair. According to NSW Health, here are some recommendations for wearing a P2 facemask:

  1. Remove glasses and hats. Tie back long hair so it does not become tangled in the straps of the respiratory mask
  1. Put the mask on your face, ensuring the nose piece is at the top of the mask
  2. Place the headband or ties over the head and at the base of the neck
  3. Compress the mask against the face to ensure a seal across the bridge of the nose
  4. Compress the mask to ensure a seal across the cheeks and the face; and
  5. Conduct a fit check: check the seal of the mask by gently inhaling. If the mask is not drawn in towards the face, or air leaks around the face seal, readjust the mask and repeat process or check for defects in the mask. If the mask still leaks you may need to try a different size or style of mask.

Watch a video demonstration from NSW Health here.

Important facts

  • Change the mask when it becomes moist
  • Wait until you are in place with cleaner air quality before removing the mask.
  • Anyone who feels dizzy, faint or out of breath while wearing a P2 mask should remove it and go to a place with cleaner air quality.
  • If the mask becomes damaged, soiled, moist or contaminated, it is best to replace or remove it.
  • P2 masks are a disposable item.

Tips to avoid smoke exposure

  • Stay indoors, close doors and windows, create a clean air space and keep activity levels low.
  • Switch air-conditioners to “recirculate” if you have this function.
  • If your home is uncomfortable and it is safe to do so, take an air-conditioned break elsewhere such as an indoor shopping centre or library.
  • When indoors, reduce activities that affect indoor air quality, like smoking cigarettes, burning candles or vacuuming.
  • Anyone with a heart or lung condition should take their medication as prescribed by their doctor.
  • People with asthma should follow their asthma management plan or follow Asthma First Aid if symptoms arise.

To speak to one of our Asthma Educators call 1800 ASTHMA (1800 278 462) or book a call online here.

References: CAR – Centre of Air pollution, energy and health researchNSW HealthThe Age.