Updated: Mar 24, 2021
Some European countries have mandated FFP2 masks because of their superior filtration efficiency.
The simplest cloth mask is no longer sufficient in some European countries such as Germany, Austria, and France, where the preference is for medical-grade masks such as FFP2 respirators because they are deemed more effective at reducing the spread of the virus.
The German state of Bavaria made FFP2 protective masks mandatory in January. The German government introduced new measures shortly thereafter, making medical-grade masks mandatory in stores and on public transit. At the end of January, Austria specifically required FFP2 masks in these situations.
What are FFP2 masks?
A respirator (also known as a filtering face piece (FFP) mask or filtering half mask) is a device designed to protect the wearer from exposure to airborne contaminants (e.g. from inhaling dust or infectious particles), according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).
The EN 149 standard defines performance requirements for three classes of particle-filtering respirators: FFP1, FFP2 and FFP3. Respirators rated FFP1 filter out at least 80% of particles; FFP2s remove at least 94%, and FFP3 devices filter out at least 99.97%. These respirators are made of several layers of fabric and paper and have built-in filters.
Some FFP masks are designed to be disposable, whereas others can be disinfected and reused. FFP2 masks are equivalent to other international standards known as N95, KN95 and P2.
Are there high-filtration textile masks?
Not all textile masks are created equal. The simplest cloth masks don’t offer much protection against Covid-19 and neither do scarves, neck tubes, or turtle necks. However, some masks, such as the UNS1 masks, are quite efficient in filtering out particles.
Last year, the French government issued an instruction defining two categories of masks for non-medical purpose -- UNS1 and UNS2, which undergo stringent certification procedures by inspections groups such as the Swiss SGS.
UNS1 masks, which must perform at least at a 90% filtration level, are designed for professionals who have frequent and regular contact with the public such as policemen or cashiers. These masks can also be used by the general public.
How are FFP2 masks better?
Put simply, FFP2 masks offer a superior filtration efficiency to the simplest textile masks and the common disposable medical masks. For this reason, FFP2 respirators are also used by medical staff in intensive care units.
An experimental study cited by ECDC showed that, when coughing at a distance of 20 cm from a Petri dish, respirators were more effective than disposable medical face masks in limiting the release of infectious respiratory droplets containing SARS-CoV-2 from patients with Covid-19.
However, even the highest-grade mask does not guarantee 100% safety. Protection only works if other protective measures are taken such as strict hygiene, regular handwashing and disinfection.