Facemasks are recommended for diseases transmitted through droplets and respirators for respiratory aerosols, yet recommendations and terminology vary between guidelines. The concepts of droplet and airborne transmission that are entrenched in clinical practice have recently been shown to be more complex than previously thought. Several randomised clinical trials of facemasks have been conducted in community and healthcare settings, using widely varying interventions, including mixed interventions (such as masks and handwashing), and diverse outcomes. Of the nine trials of facemasks identified in community settings, in all but one, facemasks were used for respiratory protection of well people. They found that facemasks and facemasks plus hand hygiene may prevent infection in community settings, subject to early use and compliance. Two trials in healthcare workers favoured respirators for clinical respiratory illness. The use of reusable cloth masks is widespread globally, particularly in Asia, which is an important region for emerging infections, but there is no clinical research to inform their use and most policies offer no guidance on them. Health economic analyses of facemasks are scarce and the few published cost effectiveness models do not use clinical efficacy data. The lack of research on facemasks and respirators is reflected in varied and sometimes conflicting policies and guidelines. Further research should focus on examining the efficacy of facemasks against specific infectious threats such as influenza and tuberculosis, assessing the efficacy of cloth masks, investigating common practices such as reuse of masks, assessing compliance, filling in policy gaps, and obtaining cost effectiveness data using clinical efficacy estimates.