What is meant by 'selfish' face masks and why are we being told not to wear them?

Masks with valves (top left) make it easier for breath to be exhaled and potentially spread the virus.
Masks with valves (top left) make it easier for breath to be exhaled and potentially spread the virus. / EFE
  • Regions of Spain such as Madrid and Galicia have banned people from using masks with valves, although in the case of Madrid a judge recently annulled the latest restrictions imposed to combat coronavirus

The most recent restrictions applied in Spanish regions to fight against coronavirus include, among others, a ban on smoking if two metres social distance cannot be maintained, and the closure of nightclubs.

However some areas, such as Madrid and Galicia, have also limited the use of masks which are considered "selfish" by the government's head of pandemic advice, Fernando Simón. These are none other than the versions of the FFP2 and FFP3 masks with a valve.

In the case of Madrid, a judge has decided that the latest restrictions imposed by the regional government are invalid because they were not issued during a state of alarm and a national government order was not published in the Official State Bulletin. And with this decision, the restriction on the use of the so-called "selfish" masks was also overturned. But what exactly are these "selfish" masks?

Firstly, we need to bear in mind that the reason given by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Spanish Ministry of Health for wearing masks is to protect others from a possible Covid-19 infection, because someone can have the illness but experience no symptoms, or be infected and contagious for several days before any symptoms occur.

'I protect you, you protect me'

The message "I protect you and you protect me", which became a popular video in the Czech Republic, serves as an example of this premise.

That is the reason the use of the FFP2 and FFP3 masks with a plastic valve device is not recommended, because they only protect the people who are wearing them and nobody else.

In fact, what the valve does is make it easier for the breath to be exhaled without any type of filter and, as a result, "they can contribute to the spread of coronavirus," says the WHO. The FFP2 with a plastic add-on filter impedes the inhalation of toxic dust, fluids, aerosols and smoke, and the FFP3 is also effective against bacteria, viruses and fungal spores.

That is why, for general use in cases where someone could be infected without realising it, hygienic masks (reusable or not) should be used, or surgical ones (for which the government has capped the price at 0.96 euros). Both act as a barrier to protect others from possible contagion by reducing the release of respiratory droplets.

The difference between hygienic and surgical masks is that the first are a type of non-medical mask, in other words they are not designed to be used by health professionals, but they are manufactured to certain technical specifications.

In the case of FFP2 and FFP3 masks without a valve, these serve to protect the wearer and also other people, because they filter the entry and exit of air. They are more expensive and are also difficult to find. That is why, as the Consumers and Users Union (UCO) says, "apart from health workers, their use should be a priority for those at risk, such as people with chronic illnesses, the immunocompromised and those looking after infected patients."

If you don't have certified masks (whether they are hygienic, surgical or FPP2 and FPP3 without a valve), you can wear a home-made mask or a PM2.5 anti-dust mask. "They may not be as effective as the others, but it is better than no mask at all," says the OCU.