Facemasks: What kind do I need and where do I get them?

Summary

People – especially people who can’t sew – are stressing out about facemasks. But with a bit of diligence, it’s not that hard to find them

Cover up

Facemasks – they’re the new toilet paper. Everybody wants one, but they don’t know where to look. Facemasks, however, are a big part of Belgium’s lockdown exit strategy. Starting on Monday, anyone who finds themselves in a situation where social distancing is difficult is supposed to wear one.

Most importantly, public transport users across Belgium are required to wear a facemask when on board a bus, tram, metro or train, also from Monday, the first day of Phase 1 of the exit plan. Because many people are going back to work at the same time, this has ramped up people’s search for facemasks.

The good news is that the government says that a scarf over the nose and mouth will suffice in public transport for anyone without a facemask. In the meantime, here’s our guide to finding one in Flanders.

What kind of mask do I need?

There has been much talk about kinds of facemasks as orders placed by the federal government were not always the kind required by medical personnel. But if you are not medical personnel, you don’t need the special FFP2 masks that hospital workers must wear when caring for coronavirus patients. You just need something to catch any spittle that comes out of your mouth.

So your only decision to make is: disposable or reusable? While most people are interested in reusable masks that they can wash and wear over and over, this isn’t really necessary, according to Ghent pharmacist Yves Haghedooren.

The pharmacy

Haghedooren runs a small neighbourhood pharmacy with everything in stock that everyone else is running out of: Latex gloves, antiseptic gel, facemasks. “I don’t advertise any of it, I just sell them to my customers,” he says.

He sells simple surgical masks and always tells buyers the same thing. “Buy five and wear a different one every day. At the end of the five days, start over again. The virus only lasts for 72 hours, so it’s dead by then.”

You’ll want to set each mask aside after wearing and not touch it until its turn comes up again. You'll need to replace them when they get dirty (you can't wash them), but the same set of five facemasks can last for weeks.

Should your local pharmacy be out of facemasks, try another. They are ordering new supplies all the time. If you’ve not found any, ask a pharmacy if you can be put on a waiting list.

The city

Many municipalities are promising a facemask for every citizen. The Brussels region, for instance, has launched a task force to buy fabric and recruit companies to make masks. The city of Ghent has promised that a washable facemask will show up in every post-box for all citizens over the age of 12. None of this will happen by Monday, but it will happen in many municipalities over the next several weeks, so it’s worth checking with yours to see if they are taking any action.

Buy a homemade mask

Never have so many people dusted off their sewing machines all at once. You might be asking yourself: Are these homemade facemasks really useful? How can we be sure of the quality?

The point of a facemask is to keep your saliva droplets from spraying a metre in front of you when you cough or sneeze. The virus is spread in those droplets. Stop the droplets, and you stop the virus. So they don't all need to be exactly the same. They just need to cover your nose, mouth and chin.

Just remember that facemasks aren't foolproof; they are simply one tool in hygiene measures to stop yourself passing on the virus. So even if you’re wearing a mask, wash your hands regularly and don’t touch your face!


In any case, there are plenty of handmade washable masks to buy online. Belgian brand Share the Passion is selling masks made out of bamboo. De Blauwe Raaf creative atelier in Antwerp is selling them (though they are not taking any more new orders until 6 May). And then there is Etsy, which has plenty of options, some made right here in Flanders.

Make your own

Belgium’s federal government has approved a pattern for making facemasks and devoted a website to it – in four languages, no less. So if you have a sewing machine and know how to use it, get to work.

The government's pattern includes a pocket in the mask that a filter can be placed in. Filters? Where do I get those!? Don’t stress about the filters – you can just buy vacuum cleaner or carbon filters and cut out the right size to fit in your facemask. In fact, some people don’t use filters at all – it just adds an additional layer of protection.

Whether you buy or make your own cloth mask, it is suggested to wash it after a few hours of use at a temperature of at least 60°C. Experts also say that you can boil the mask in a pot for a few minutes. It needs to be completely dry before using it again, so it’s advisable to have two or more masks.

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