If even after months of hearing and reading about the new coronavirus, you’re still confused about face masks and their purpose, you’re not alone.
Government recommendations have changed dramatically since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with health authorities initially recommending that only sick people and their carers wear face masks, in part to prevent shortages in medical facilities.
That guidance has since considerably shifted, and many countries now recommend that people wear face masks in public whether or not they have symptoms of illness, in order to prevent the spread of viral particles in crowded or shared spaces.
The masks cannot prevent their wearers from breathing in tiny particles of the virus – for that level of protection, they would need to wear FFP2 masks, which are typically used by health workers – but, if worn correctly, they can certainly stop their wearers from coughing, sneezing or sputtering their germs onto their surroundings.
"If you want to avoid getting coronavirus, the best thing to do is to stay away from crowded places and wash your hands lots, and so the masks are just an incremental thing," Dr Simon Kolstoe, a senior lecturer in evidence-based healthcare at the University of Portsmouth, told Euronews.
"But the more people who wear them, the less likely we are to spread coronavirus around surfaces and it will make a small – but I think a very important – difference to preventing the spread of the disease."
Still, the strength of this barrier varies greatly depending on the nature of the face covering.
Using a scarf, a surgical mask and a box of matches, Kolstoe gave on Euronews a memorable demonstration of why a simple scarf or bandana may not be protective enough. (If you haven’t watched the video yet, now is the time to click on the player above.)
The use of face masks is now taking hold in European societies, according to a poll commissioned by Euronews in Germany, Italy, France and Spain.
The survey, carried out by Redfield and Wilton Strategies, found that the majority of respondents believe masks are effective in combating the spread of COVID-19 and that they always wear them in supermarkets or on public transport.
However, those figures considerably drop when it comes to meeting with a friend outside or going for a walk in the park.
Kolstoe suspects the use of face masks will continue to rise until the world gets a grip on COVID-19, with a vaccine and effective drugs – but that the new habit of masking up could become a much more long-term legacy of the pandemic.
"We may well find that moving forward, when you just have a cold for instance, and you have to go out, it might be more acceptable for people to wear masks and indeed expected for people to wear masks," he said.
"So I think it's something that we're going to see staying for probably a very long time."