COVID-19 (Coronavirus) may impact your travel plans. Wherever you're going, you'll find the latest advice here.

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Face masks for air travel during the coronavirus pandemic

The wearing of face masks has definitely become part of the ‘new normal’ for 2020. Whether it’s at your local coffee shop or on the city bus, face masks are often required to help us slow the spread of COVID-19. Another place where masks are mandatory is when you’re travelling on an airplane. In that case, what do travellers need to know? We’ve collected all the latest information you need about when to wear a travel face mask, the proper and safe way to wear one, and where to buy your own.

What are the rules around wearing masks when flying?

Different airlines have adopted different rules for mask-wearing on flights, including how to enforce those rules. To make sure you’re well-informed for travel, we recommend checking with your airline before your departure date. In general, all Canadian airlines have mandatory travel face mask requirements for the entire journey. Wearing a face mask while on board is required for airlines such as Air Canada and WestJet.

Most premium airlines will provide masks if you need one. Airlines such as Air Canada, Emirates, and Air Transat are handing out hygiene kits to everyone on board. These usually include face masks for travel, gloves, antibacterial wipes, and gel. Budget airlines like Swoop and Flair require travel face masks to be worn but don’t provide them.

Face masks for travel and sanitizer bottle

If you’re wondering about the food and drink situation during your flight, please note that you can take your mask off to eat and drink while in transit, but all travellers are encouraged to prioritize hand hygiene and distancing when doing so. Note that some budget airlines have suspended food service altogether and others are only serving pre-packaged snacks rather than full meals. Check in advance whether you will need to bring your own supplies for the flight.

Why should I wear a mask when flying?

Wearing face masks for travel is one of a number of ways that travellers can help limit the spread of coronavirus, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Evidence shows that coronavirus is primarily a respiratory-transmitted disease, so wearing a travel face mask over your mouth and nose can help reduce the risk of transmission of air droplets from person to person.

It’s important to wear a mask when flying because you’ll often be in close proximity to other travellers, and masks can help create a barrier between yourself and another traveller’s germs. A travel face mask, coupled with other preventative measures – such as safe distancing and good hand hygiene – can help protect travellers from spreading the coronavirus.

When should I wear a mask?

Do I need to wear a mask going to and from the airport?

Wherever you are in the world, you’ll almost certainly need to be wearing a face mask for the duration of your time on the plane. But it’s also highly likely that you’ll be required to wear a face mask on your trips to and from the airport, so it’s best to be prepared for wearing your face mask for an extended amount of time.

Station attendant on subway

It’s now mandatory to wear face masks on all public transport in most European countries, including the UK, Spain, and France, and passengers that don’t comply risk incurring fines. The same is true in Canada, where provincial and municipal authorities are asking all passengers (over the age of two years old) to wear face masks while in transit. Masks are also compulsory on many ride-sharing services like Lyft and Uber.

If you’re planning a trip, we recommend checking with the local health department websites of the cities you’re travelling to. You can get the latest health and safety travel advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the Government of Canada’s website for destination-specific guidance.  

At what point in the airport do I need to wear a mask?

Rules vary between airports, but generally, travel face masks should be worn from check-in onwards. Every Canadian airport has made it mandatory for passengers to be masked throughout their buildings.

Once checked in, passengers are typically asked to keep their travel face mask on for the entirety of their journey, from boarding and in-flight, through to disembarking at the end of your trip.

bunch of travel face masks

Check the websites for your departure and arrival airports, plus your chosen airline, and always have your face mask handy just in case you need to put it on. If you’re unsure and want to stay as safe as possible, consider wearing your face mask at all times.

What should I look for in a mask?

Disposable vs reusable: are single-use, paper masks better, or is a fabric mask OK?

Near-total protection from respiratory infections can only be provided by N95 respirator masks, which are properly fitted and typically used by healthcare workers. As these masks are needed by medical workers, and experts say that the average person doesn’t need a surgical-grade mask, those of us who aren’t on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic will be wearing either disposable paper masks or reusable, washable cloth masks.

Evidence suggests that both types of face masks protect others from you if you’re carrying the virus; if an infected person sneezes on a plane, the transmission risk is far lower if they sneeze into a face mask than into the air. Research suggests that wearing a mask reduces transmission by up to 79 percent. However, some materials may trap virus particles better than others, so bear that in mind when buying a cloth mask.

Remember that if you’re wearing it for a long period of time, a cloth mask has to feel comfortable and breathable. A 100 percent-cotton mask should fit the bill, and make sure it’s machine washable.

There’s an environmental incentive for buying cloth masks, too. Research by students at UCL shows that if every person in the UK used one single-use mask each day for a year, an extra 66,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste would be created. Investing in reusable masks drastically reduces the impact on plastic waste and climate change.

How do you know the effectiveness of a mask?

Lots of research has been conducted this year on the effectiveness of medical, as well as non-medical masks. While non-surgical masks cannot fully protect you from inhaling virus particles, the CDC suggests that any covering, even a scarf, is better than none. The general consensus is that the closer-fitting the mask, the more effective it is.

A disposable, medical mask can block moisture droplets, but as the sides are not completely sealed, there’s still a risk of inhaling the virus. The same goes for a fabric mask, although for homemade masks, different household materials remove different levels of viruses and bacteria. One US study compared them and found that good options include multiple layers of material and heavyweight quilter’s cotton. The Canadian Government advises that homemade, fabric masks should have at least three layers in order to get the most efficient protection from the virus.

In September, Transport Canada advised Canadian aircraft operators to prohibit the use of a number of types of face coverings, based on evidence of their ineffectiveness. These prohibited travel face masks include those with exhalation valves, bandanas and neck gaiters, militaristic masks such as gas masks and face coverings that cover the entire face.

When you’re buying non-surgical-grade masks, their effectiveness will be listed in their description, as well as the percentage of particles they are expected to block, so always read and compare the small print.

Where can I buy a mask?

Disposable masks are available in pharmacies and local supermarkets, but as mask-wearing could be the norm for the foreseeable future, many shoppers are turning to the online marketplace to buy reusable, machine-washable, fabric masks.

To find some stylish, quality masks, dig a bit deeper to invest in masks made by independent creators, or even companies with a charitable element. Charity is a big part of why Clippo exists today. $5 from the sale of designated patterns is donated directly to charities and organizations such as The Denise House, a shelter that supports women and children impacted by violence.

Mayana Genevière a high luxe, intimate apparel line is now designing Canadian face masks for adults and kids. Each purchase will support two local initiatives: supplying low-income families in Toronto with masks and producing quality gowns for Midwives. Comfey makes 100% cotton masks that are great for travel days. Since May 2020, ViolaCreatives has donated $1000 Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation UHN, and over 300 masks to organizations including the Scott Mission and Matthew House Toronto.

How do I wear a mask?

If you need to wear a face mask ,it’s important to ensure you’re wearing it correctly and following guidance on how to put them on and take them off. In the case of reusable masks, how to ensure you’re able to use them again safely and how to wash them. The WHO offers comprehensive guidelines and easy-to-understand instructional videos, too, so you can see exactly how to wear a face mask.

How do I put my mask on?

A face mask or face covering should fully cover your nose and mouth, but you should still be able to breathe comfortably without obstruction.

  1. To start, wash your hands or use hand sanitizer. The WHO recommends rubbing alcohol-based hand rub for 20 to 30 seconds or washing your hands with soap and water for 40-60 seconds. 
  2. Next, ensure your mask itself is clean and not damaged – this means you also shouldn’t have previously worn it without washing or replacing it. If you’ve previously used your mask and haven’t washed it, you’ll need to wash it before using it again. If you’re using disposable masks, these are single-use, and you should get a new disposable face mask each time. 
  3. Put on the face mask, securing the loops behind each ear or behind your head, depending on your mask type. The mask should cover your nose and mouth and fit comfortably over your chin, with no open gaps on the sides. 
  4. For disposable medical masks, the pliable metal piece should go over the bridge of your nose, and the white side of the mask is usually the interior; the blue side, the exterior. Pinch the metal part on the bridge of your nose so that it moulds to your nose shape. 
  5. Avoid touching your face mask whenever you’re wearing it.
  6. If your mask gets dirty or wet, make sure you replace it with a new one. 

How do I do a fit test to maximize protection?

Your face masks should fully cover your nose, mouth and chin, and fit comfortably behind your ears or behind your head. There shouldn’t be gaps on the side of your mask. The WHO advises that if there are gaps, the mask won’t be effective in preventing respiratory droplets from reaching you or transmitting from you to other people. If your mask doesn’t fit properly, don’t use it, and be sure to find an alternative mask or face covering that fits better.

How do I safely remove my mask?

Just as with putting on a face mask, you need to take care removing your mask to avoid possible contamination, too.

  1. Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer first, just like you did to put the face mask on.
  2. Without touching the front of the mask, remove it by the loops behind your ears or behind your head, pulling it away from your face. Continue holding it by the ear loops. 
  3. For single-use medical masks, you should dispose of these immediately after use, preferably in a bin that you can close the lid.
  4. For fabric masks, place used masks in a sealable plastic bag until you can wash it. When you wash it, remove the mask from the plastic bag by the ear straps only, and wash in hot water with detergent.
blue disposable face masks for travel

Can I wear my mask more than once?

You should not wear your medical-grade face mask again once you’ve already used it for a better part of the day. Your reusable fabric face masks can be worn again, but you need to ensure it has been washed after every single use, ideally in hot water (60 degrees Celsius) with a simple (and ideally eco-friendly) detergent. And make sure to hang dry.

Remember that disposable face masks should never be worn more than once. Always dispose of these properly after each use. 

How often do I need to wash my mask?

You should wash your reusable fabric face mask after every time you wear it. For example, if you’ve spent all day out and about with the mask on, you should plan to wash it when you get home before putting it back on. The WHO recommends that you wash your fabric mask in hot water with detergent to ensure its cleanliness so you can wear it again. It’s best to have two or three masks on rotation so that you don’t risk running out.

How do I safely dispose of my mask?

The WHO advises that for disposable face masks, you should first wash or sanitize your hands with an alcohol-based hand gel. Then, remove the ear straps from behind your ears or behind your head without touching the front of the mask, and holding the ear straps, dispose of the face mask in the trash – ideally one with a lid so any potential virus particles won’t be released into the air.

What are some other ways to stay healthy while in flight and at the airport?

There are a lot of practical steps you can take. Regularly wash your hands (with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand gel), avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth and stay at least two metres away from someone who is coughing or sneezing. You should also bring your own food and drink supplies when possible, including a refillable bottle for water.

The WHO offers comprehensive guidelines about how to reduce the risk of transmission and infection in public places. We recommend that these are followed in transit as well as in any public space, while the coronavirus continues to be a threat.

Empty lines at airport

Overall, wearing face masks for travel is no guarantee that you are protected from being infected with coronavirus, or any other respiratory disease. But research shows that they can significantly reduce the virus’s transmission, especially when they’re well-fitted, washed regularly and paired with good hand hygiene and other precautions such as distancing.

“Wearing a non-medical mask, even if you have no symptoms, is an additional measure that you can take to protect others around you in situations where physical distancing is difficult to maintain, such as in public transit. Keep up with effective public health practices like physical distancing, hand washing and wearing a mask or face covering.”

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer

Dr. Theresa Tam has also emphasized the importance of wearing comfortable, and well-fitting masks in order to stay safe.

“I keep emphasizing the fit is one of the most important things,” she said. “It fits around your mouth, on your nose, and it has to cover your mouth and nose. So that’s really important.”

The WHO updated its guidelines on June 5, 2020, to recommend that governments ask everyone to wear fabric face masks in public areas and the same guidelines apply to your behaviour in transit. Many governments – including Canada – still advise against all non-essential travel while the pandemic is ongoing. Travel bubbles have been created over the past several months, and some countries borders are still completely closed.

Whether you decide to travel is up to you. You can use resources like the WHO, PHAC, and CDC to help you make your decision and make your trip as safe and comfortable as possible.  

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