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: 4 April 2022

On this page:

See also:

Using a mask can help protect yourself and others against COVID-19

The Omicron variants is highly transmissible, so we need to use a range of measures and tools to protect us from infection.

Wearing masks is an important tool that can minimise the direct spread of the virus through particles in the air.

How COVID-19 spreads

Face masks are just one of the measures we can use for reducing the spread of the virus. Other measures include:

  • being up-to-date with your COVID-19 vaccinations
  • staying home and seeking medical advice if you are unwell
  • keeping your distance from other people and opening windows for ventilation
  • cleaning your hands often and sneezing and coughing into your elbow.

Protecting yourself and others from COVID-19

For some people, wearing a face mask is unsuitable due to a disability or health condition.

Face masks exemption advice

See Personal Protective Equipment use in health and disability care settings for detailed guidance on the appropriate use of PPE by health care and support workers at all settings.

For further guidance on face masks under the COVID-19 Protection Framework, visit the Unite Against COVID-19 website.

How masks prevent transmission

Masks help to prevent transmission 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.

How well a mask protects you depends on how well it fits to the face and how well it filters the air. If there are big gaps around the mask, the mask will be less effective because it is easier for the air to travel through the gaps and very little air will be filtered through the mask material.

For the most effective protection, it is essential to choose a good quality mask that fits you well, and to wear it consistently and correctly according to any relevant instructions for its use.  Find the mask that best fits to cover your nose, mouth, and chin without gaps above, below or on the sides.

Types of face masks

Masks and respirators can provide different levels of protection depending on the type of mask and how they are used.

Key things to consider when selecting a mask are the level of infection risk that you will face, how well it fits you, the filtration ability of the material, and comfort.  However, any mask is better than no mask.

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 are most protective 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.

Fabric reusable masks can be purchased through a variety of retail outlets, online or, you can make your own mask (Unite against COVID-19).

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 often used interchangeably to refer to these masks. For use in health care they 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.

Disposable N95/P2 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. The world-wide demand for these masks has been very high.

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. Staff working in specific high-risk areas such as the border and managed isolation facilities also wear these masks.

Some members of the public may choose to use respirator masks if they are available. It is important that anybody wearing a respirator follows the manufacturer’s instructions on how to put the mask on correctly to ensure there are no gaps. 

To be most effective particulate respirators need to have a very tight seal around the face. There are specific tests used in industries and health care settings to ensure that a respirator is providing the best protection. See how to use a face mask safely.

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

Dust masks/masks that have exhalation valves are not recommended

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.

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 face mask 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. This includes:

  • wear it the right way up – if your mask has a nose wire, this goes across the bridge of your nose and not on your chin. If wearing a medical mask, the pleats face downwards
  • wear it the right side out – the white side of your medical mask goes against your face and the coloured part faces outwards
  • know how to improve the fit of the mask (see below).

Practice good hygiene

  • Wash and dry your hands or use hand sanitiser before putting your mask on.
  • Avoid touching the front of the mask while you are wearing it.
  • If you need to adjust your mask, clean your hands as above before hand.
  • Carefully remove your mask and store or dispose of it safely after use to avoid contaminating your hands.
  • Perform hand hygiene after removing your mask.

Any mask you use should be changed when it becomes damp, damaged or dirty.

Improve the fit of your mask

For fabric disposable masks or medical masks, there are some techniques you can use to improve the fit of your mask:

  • use masks that have a ‘nose bridge wire’ included – this helps mould the mask across the bridge of your nose.
  • tuck excess material from your face mask to reduce any gaps around the side of your face.
  • use a mask brace or ear loop clip to tighten your mask against your face to prevent air leakage.
  • increase the number of layers in your mask. If you are making your own mask include three layers.
  • wear a disposable medical mask underneath your fabric mask (wearing two disposable medical masks will not improve fit).
  • consider shaving or trimming facial hair to achieve a better level of fit.

For further guidance visit how to use a face mask safely and the Unite Against COVID-19 website.

Fitting particulate respirators

Particulate respirators require specific tests when to ensure that a respirator is providing the best protection. This includes:

  • ‘fit testing’ is 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) is 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.

Beards and some styles of facial hair can interfere with achieving a good seal between your face and the edge of a particulate respirator. Being clean shaven or having facial hair that does not cross the line where the mask must seal on your face are the best options.

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


Improve how your mask protects you (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance)

How to Knot and Tuck Your Mask to Improve Fit (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention video)

COVID-19 Infection Prevention and Control Living guideline: mask use in community settings, 22 December 2021 (World Health Organization technical guidance)

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.

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

  • 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
  • when eating, drinking or taking medication
  • 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
  • if it is raining and you cannot prevent your mask or face covering from getting wet.

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 Delta and 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.

If you can't wear a face mask

If you are unable to wear a face mask, you should not worry if a business owner or employee approaches you to ask whether you are able to wear a face mask. They are just ensuring your safety and the safety of others. If you are unable to wear a mask, you may have an exemption card to show, but this is not a requirement.

Find more information including applying for an exemption card: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.

People at higher risk

People at higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19 are advised to avoid being in crowded, poorly ventilated indoor spaces with people they don’t know, particularly if they have not been vaccinated.

If you need to go out, and feel you are vulnerable, you may wish to discuss with your health provider whether using a medical mask is best for you.

See COVID-19: Advice for higher risk people for information about who is considered to be at higher risk and on how to help keep yourself safe from COVID-19.

In this section

  • We know face masks are unsuitable for some people due to disabilities or health conditions. A Communication Card has been developed for you can show to transport operators, retailers and service providers. These make it easier to explain that a face mask is unsuitable for you. Read more
  • If you choose to wear a face mask – one you purchase or make yourself – you need to know how to use it safely. This includes how you put it on, what to do while wearing it, how to take it off and how to handle it safely after use to avoid the risk of infection. Read more
Back to top