France advises against fabric face masks due to new Covid variants

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France advises against fabric face masks due to new Covid variants
A cloth mask. Photo: AFP

With new, more contagious variants of coronavirus circling health officials in France have issued updated advice warning against the wearing of fabric masks. Here is the latest guidance.


Faced with two new and relatively unfamiliar variants of the coronavirus, which were first discovered in the UK and South Africa respectively, France's health advisory council (Haute Conseil de la Santé Publique HCPS) has amended its advice to the public for wearing protective face masks.

While they have not yet published an official opinion, the council has confirmed their new position on homemade masks to French media after it was first reported in La Voix du Nord on Monday.

At this stage this is advice, not a rule.

Masks are compulsory in all indoor public spaces in France as well as on the streets in around 400 towns and cities, but the government guidance says only that a mask fully covering the nose and mouth must be worn. People caught without masks or wearing masks incorrectly face a €135 fine.

There is no distinction in the government advice between fabric or surgical masks, although individual businesses are free to impose their own conditions.

New advice

Here's what the health council has said;

"When it comes to the penetration of certain new variants. . . which are more contagious . . . the question is raised of what kind of mask to recommend to the general public," said Didier Lepelletier, co-president of the Covid-19 working group of the HCPS, during an interview with BFMTV.


Over the weekend, Lepelletier and the rest of the working group decided that cloth masks, preferred by many because they can be re-used, did not guarantee sufficient protection against the new Covid-19 variants.


Health Minister Olivier Véran on Tuesday morning echoed that new advice.

"Artisan masks that you make at home, with the best intentions in the world, respecting the official advice, do not necessarily offer all the necessary guarantees," he told France Inter.


The problem with cloth masks is that not all of them have not been officially checked and therefore their level of protection will largely depend on their fabric, thickness and the maker's craftsmanship.

Since March many small businesses in France have begun making masks that, while good for the environment and often prettily decorated, don't necessarily that the necessary thickness and layers of fabric to offer full protection. 

So what mask to wear?

These are still recommendations at the stage, but the Council's recommendation is to wear a category 1 mask, rather than a category 2.

Category 2 masks are those that have been proved to filter more than 70 percent. Known as "masques du grand public" (masks for the general public) these are most cloth masks and were the ones advised to the general public last spring, but they remain common. 

Category 1 masks are those that filter more than 90 percent of particles. This includes the FFP2 filter masks, the blue single-use surgical masks and certain types of fabric masks that meet specifications. The issue with fabric masks is that most are made in France, rather than imported, and a lot do not display filtration levels allowing you to know which category they fall in.

Lepelletier said everyone now should opt for category 1 masks.


He advised against purchasing FFP2 masks - the most protective ones - as these are different to wear right and lose efficiency when worn wrong. Health staff, who use these masks, are trained in how to wear them correctly.

Commenting on the new advice, several health experts also told BFMTV that it is much better to wear a fabric mask than to incorrectly wear an FFP2 mask.

What to look for when buying a mask 

Figuring out whether you're buying a category 1 or category 2 mask is not quite as simple as it seems - many surgical masks are labelled Type II - but this is not the same as category 2.

You should look for filtration level first and get one that is 90 percent or more.

Almost all types of the blue surgical masks should be above 90 percent, but check the box for filtration level and/or type level - any surgical masks labelled as Type I, Type II or Type IIR filter more than 90 percent.

If you are buying surgical masks from a large chain store or multinational they should comply to international standards, but if you are buying from a smaller or independent store you should also check that the mask packaging includes information on how many masks a package contains, the name and address of the producer, the expiry date, how to stock them and instructions for use.


They should also include a mention on their norm, depending on whether they were produced in Europe (EN14682), the US (ASTM F2100-19, level 1, 2 and 3) or in China (YY 0469-2011). All of these three have been officially approved.

Fabric masks also need a label stating that they filter more than 90 percent or comply to category 1 levels. If they don't have a label - and most of the ones produced in smaller independent stores in France don't - then they cannot be guaranteed to have the correct level of filtration. Fabric masks confirming to category 1 specifications should also include how many times they can be washed before being discarded.

Home-made masks - while many people have enjoyed making their own masks, sometimes coordinated to outfits, these are now completely advised against. The HSPC says that even masks made by people who follow the Afnor specifications cannot be guaranteed to give the correct level of protection. 

Volunteers wearing face shields during France's 2020 municipal elections as an extra protective measure. Photo: AFP

Face shields - the plastic face visors have never been accepted as a sufficient protection in France and you can be fined if you are wearing one of these without a proper masks underneath.

A see-through mask adapted to the needs of the hearing impaired. Photo: AFP

See-through masks - an increasing number of retailers now stock masks with transparent panels in order to help people with hearing problems to lip read. These are generally fabric masks with a plastic centre panel so the same rules apply as to other types of fabric masks.




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Anonymous 2021/01/20 23:06
Thank you for sharing, it is interesting. The point still remains, the air escapes around the mask and comes in from airgaps around the mask, unless you wear an N95 what is uncomfortable and apparently not necessary. As most people do touch their mask, wear it impropperly, do not keep distance, wear it until you see it's dirty, keep it in their pocket, etc, etc. You can question the wearing of masks unless in very closed environments like an airplane, but than that might not even be a problem with all the filters. Eat healthy, exercise, be happy, build your own immunity! And when old or vunerable, wear an N95 mask and know how to wear it properly, stay away from high risk places, take vitamine C, D etc. Keep safe, use commen sense and do not believe everything they want you to believe. The media has created a lot of fear, reported a lot of sensational 'cases' and 'forgotten' about the indirect damage from lock downs. Abuse, divorce, poverty, death from delayed treatments, loss of businesses, mental health, etc, etc
Anonymous 2021/01/20 10:51
Johanna, the reason is because of particle size. Molecules that cause smells are extremely small. The coronavirus particles, on the other hand, are relatively large (0.1-0.5μm).<br /><br />If somebody was wearing a mask that blocked all odor molecules, they would probably also need to be wearing an air tank to stay alive.<br /><br />This is a really interesting picture that shows the relative sizes of small things (including COVID-19):<br />
Anonymous 2021/01/19 21:14
correction: 'about garlic'. I am just surprised everyone appears to believe that masks work. If they did and if lock-ups worked the virus would be under controle by now easily.But unfortunally that's not the case, in fact after it was compulsary the numbers only went up, and up. Why? I guess the false feeling of being safe with a mask and getting too close.
Anonymous 2021/01/19 20:56
It is not a out garlic, that's healthy, the point is if you can smell breath, the virus can pass.
Anonymous 2021/01/19 20:21
There is a heightened risk if you keep touching your mask with possibly infected fingers, it's important that they fit properly to reduce this. We all touch our faces repeatedly. Try to teach children not to touch their masks...hard I know!
Anonymous 2021/01/19 20:20
Folks, masks are not there to protect you from others. They are there to protect them from you. <br /><br />You may be asymtomatic and not know you have the disease but you'll still be capable of spreading it and the better the mask the better the chance of reducing the amount of germs that will get past the mask. <br /><br />Act like you've got the disease, it makes it safer for everyone.
Anonymous 2021/01/19 19:44
Johanna, I agree with some of what you say, but your point bout garlic breath is a non starter! Garlic and other onion family products are most efficient antiseptics! They may not smell nice but they protect you from a host of illnesses! Just for added measure oysters also have a great positive effect on your immune system.
Anonymous 2021/01/19 18:36
? Unless you get masks for free, how to be sure people are changing them every four hours? Just imagen a family with 3 children in school, that is 9 masks for them. One new one to school, throw away at lunch time, new one after lunch, new one before leaving school or whenever the child touches the mask or sneezes. Father and mother each 4 to come through the day, thats 17 masks a day! I wonder how many people are willing or can spend that amount of money........... for young families this covid is nothing more than a sniffel, the old and high risk are vaccinated at the moment....... Masks might work if someone coughs in your face, most people do not do that. The solution is masks and desinfectant, yeah rubbish, what about building your own immunity by eating healthy and getting some exercise? Keeping distance and fresh air. I walk past people in the supermarket and can smell their breath (garlic, rotten teeth) and than you tell me as long as I wear a mask the chance is really small I get it, really?
Anonymous 2021/01/19 13:47
Anything to cover up the fact of lack of vaccinations...<br /><br />France 479,000<br />UK 4,000,000<br /><br />Come on France, get your act together!
Anonymous 2021/01/19 13:16
There are some fabric masks that have an opening for placing a disposable filter. This does help the “green” economy that Europe wishes to become and is often used in China!
Anonymous 2021/01/19 12:13
I would have thought the wearing of any mask is preferable to not wearing one.

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