Wondering how to best use a face mask to reduce your exposure to coronavirus? We’ve got you covered.
The U.S government now recommends that Americans wear masks or other face coverings when out in public. The intention is to slow the spread of COVID-19: Researchers have found that people may be able to transmit the virus for days without showing symptoms, and wearing a mask may reduce your exposure to the virus. What to do now? First, leave the N95 masks for healthcare providers; it’s recommended that the public use cloth or homemade masks instead. Second, follow this expert advice to avoid making the most common mistakes when wearing face masks.1
“Once you wear a mask once, it’s contaminated by whatever. If you take the mask off and sit it on another surface, that surface is now contaminated,” says Geoffrey Mount Varner, MD, MPH, FACEP, a Maryland-based emergency medicine physician.
The Rx: “It’s best to use one-use masks and once they are taken off, dispose of them,” says Mount Varner. “If you use a cloth or hand-made mask, it needs to be washed and sanitized between wears.”
You’re Touching the Mask With Dirty Hands
“If you contaminate your mask even from the outside, you can get easily infected,” says physician Dimitar Marinov, MD, Ph.D.
“Taking off your face mask and then reapplying it with contaminated hands can move the bacteria or virus directly into the breathable area,” says Jared Heathman, MD, a Texas-based psychiatrist.
The Rx: Make sure your hands are clean before adjusting the mask. It’s best to avoid touching your face in general.
You’re Wearing the Same Mask All Day
“A mask should be changed or disinfected as often as every 2 hours, otherwise viral particles can accumulate on it and you are more likely to breathe them in,” says Marinov.
You’re Not Fully Covered
“I see many people wearing their masks below the nose,” says Marinov. “While it will still protect others if you are coughing or sneezing, it will not protect you from COVID-19 if someone else nearby is infected and coughs.”
The Rx: Once the mask is fitted properly on the nose, it should be extended so that it fits right under your chin, says Angela Abernathy, a New York City-based dentist. “This is to ensure maximum coverage.”
Adds Heathman: “The purpose is to breathe through the mask, not around the mask.”
You’re Putting It on Too Late
Without the mask, you’re susceptible to inhaling the particles in the air. “You must put it on ahead of entering an area of risk,” says Rafael Lugo, a general surgeon and owner/CEO at Lugo Surgical Group in The Woodlands, Texas.
You’re Too Trusting
You may think “the mask is 100 percent reliable,” says Lugo. Not so. “It is meant to decrease the risk. Ultimately, social distancing is king.”
“A surgical mask is not designed to provide a barrier between your respiratory system and all viruses and bacteria,” says Leann Poston, MD, a physician with Invigor Medical in New York City. “Social distancing helps protect you from viral particles sneezed and coughed into the air by people who may not know that they are sick yet.”
You’re Spraying It With Chemicals
“Applying any chemical like Lysol to the mask that makes it wet is bad,” says Lugo. “You can spray it to sanitize lightly, and then put it in a bag. Do not saturate it.”
You’re Getting the Mask Wet
“Once the mask becomes wet, it becomes less effective and needs to be changed to a dry one,” says Abernathy. Avoid touching the mask with your tongue. “Touching the mask with your tongue makes it wet and more porous,” advises Lugo. “You want the mask to stay dry.”
You’re Wearing It Wrong
“Masks have a front (that is usually colored, textured or has the brand name) and a back (that is usually white and more cotton-like),” says Abernathy. “The back side should be touching your face. It is designed this way so that particles are properly filtered.”
You Think All Masks Are the Same
Different masks have different uses. “An N95 mask filters out 95% of bacteria and viruses if they are correctly fitted to your face,” says Poston. This is what healthcare workers are using to better protect themselves when caring for sick patients. “A surgical mask is designed to contain your droplets to help protect those around you.”11
You’re Taking it Off Wrong
When you’re done wearing the mask for the day, there’s a chance you could contaminate yourself taking it off. The bacteria on your mask could get on your hands, and then it would spread.
The Rx: Wash your hands before taking off the mask. Take it off by unlooping it from your ears first and then either throw it out (if it’s a one time use) or keep it in its special place.12
You’re Wearing the Wrong Size
If the mask you’re wearing doesn’t fit, it’s not as effective. If it’s too small, you’re either leaving your nose or chin exposed. Virus particles can get in through the side openings if it’s too loose. The mask should be snug against your face! This goes for kid masks as well. 13
You’re Putting it on Wrong
Your hands should be clean before you originally put the mask on. If not, you get the participles from your hands on the previously sterile mask. For example, your fingers can touch and contaminate the inside part of the mask. 14
You’re Cleaning it Wrong
If you use a cloth mask, not washing it is the same as wearing a contaminated mask. A washing machine with the hot water setting on, using your normal detergent should be sufficient for cleaning it. Once clean, the mask should be thoroughly dried, on a clothesline or dryer. Do this weekly.15
You’re No Longer Social Distancing
You should wear a mask when you go outside, but you should still only go outside for essential services—like groceries or work. Wearing a mask might make you more likely to go outside for social reasons, as you feel safer, but self-isolating is still safer.