How to Use a Face Mask Safely

June 14th, 2022

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.

Face masks at Orange

We encourage you to wear a face mask whenever you leave the house.

You must wear a face mask:

  • on domestic flights
  • on public transport, this includes Cook Strait Ferries but does not include passengers within their allocated carriage on specified Kiwirail services or when you are on a ship that does not have an enclosed space for passengers
  • at indoor arrival and departure points for domestic flights and public transport
  • if you are aged 12 years or over on Ministry of Education funded school transport and public transport
  • in taxis or ride share vehicles
  • inside a retail business, for example supermarkets, shopping malls, pharmacies, petrol stations, and takeaway food stores
  • inside public facilities, such as museums and libraries, but not at swimming pools
  • at a vet clinic
  • visiting the indoor area of a court or tribunal — unless the judicial officer does not require them
  • at premises operated by local and central government agencies, social service providers, and NZ Police
  • in the public area of premises operated by NZ Post Limited
  • when visiting a healthcare service, for example a healthcare or aged care facility (unless you are a patient).

You are not required to wear a face mask when visiting a voting place to vote in a general election. This applies to people going to cast their vote, and to anyone supporting or assisting them.

Face masks at work

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)

United Against COVID-19 | Wear A Face Mask

Face Masks Do’s and Don’t