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"Wear a face mask." It’s something that has been recommended by the CDC since the start of the coronavirus pandemic to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and even required by many towns and cities. But, in order for face masks to truly be effective, you must be wearing them correctly. So, are you?
Fidgeting and fit are two biggies when it comes to proper face mask use, along with a few other common missteps that affect a mask’s efficacy. Here’s how to follow face mask recommendations using best practices.
Fit means function: Use your face mask to create a seal
It’s all about finding the right fit when it comes to wearing a face mask. “If [the mask] is gaping on the sides, and you don’t have a good feel, it’s not going to do its intended job of protecting you and others from respiratory droplets,” says Dr. Cassandra Pierre, an infectious disease physician at Boston Medical Center.
Masks are made to fit the average adult. For achieving the right fit, all sides of your mask should rest and be secured on your face, covering your nose and mouth completely. Make sure you extend your mask all the way down past your chin, sealing in your mouth.
Don’t forget about your nose. Pressing down on the mask around the bridge of your nose seals that area, too. Surgical masks and many cloth face masks have wire built-in to make it easy.
“When you’re selecting a cloth face mask, choose one that either has a tie that you can adjust the sides with or ear loops with adjustable ties on the side,” Pierre says.
If a face mask without adjustable ties is too tight around the ears, it can cause discomfort, and this may make it more tempting to take off your mask preemptively.
“If a mask’s ear loops are too tight and digging into the side of your ears, there are devices called ‘ear savers’,” Pierre suggests. “You can pull the ear loops over the sides [of your head] by using the ear savers. That way, it fits snugly without chafing behind your ears.”
You can also DIY your own ear savers using elastic hair bands or barrettes for a secure fit.
Wearing masks upside down or inside out is problematic
Wearing a face mask upside down or inside out reduces its effectiveness—and this is an offense we commit all the time.
Face mask structure conforms to the face, so if you’re wearing it incorrectly you can’t create that perfect seal.
“If you’re wearing a medical-grade mask, you want to make sure it’s upright,” Pierre tells us. “You want to make sure the nose piece is molded over the nose.”
Also, a thin filter on the inside the mask works to prevent particles from escaping or entering the mask.
“There is an exterior and an interior with masks. Surgical and N95 masks are constructed to have a weave in the interior that’s filtering. Use it with the front facing forward to protect you,” she says.
As for cloth face masks, unless it’s constructed with interior filters (which should face inwards), there is generally no “inside out.” You simply want to make sure you’re using one side consistently on the inside to ensure the mask’s fit doesn’t change over time.
Adjusting your face mask in public is a no-no
Wearing masks takes getting used to, but they should never cause extreme discomfort. That's why you need to make sure your mask fits comfortably before you go out. Touching your hands to your face while adjusting your face mask introduces germs to your mouth and nose, so don’t do it.
“I see people wearing masks under their nose,” says Pierre. “I understand masks can be uncomfortable and troublesome to get used to, but if you’re wearing your mask under your chin, it’s really just decorative.”
“If you’re eating, taking a phone call, or doing anything that makes you want to put your straps under your chin, take it off and put it in a safe bag or container,” says Pierre.
When you return home, make sure you remove your face mask without touching the surface and then wash it. As always, practice good hygiene and wash your hands frequently—in this case, before and after removing the mask.
Clean your masks regularly
Cloth face masks are a great option. However, because they’re reusable, you’ll want to regularly wash your cloth masks to sanitize them, either by hand or in a machine.
Both cloth masks and surgical masks should be respectively cleaned or thrown away if they become wet or soiled for any reason.
“The mask can become more porous when you have things like makeup and secretions—things that make the mask wet and cause it to be dirty and damaged,” Pierre tells us. “You’re damaging the filtration efficacy of the mask.”
Don’t stop social distancing
While face masks do help to minimize the spreading of COVID-19, as well as other contagious illnesses, they can give a false sense of security. In other words, you still need to practice precautions like hand washing and social distancing even when properly wearing a face mask.
“People should be washing their hands, wearing their masks, and physically distancing when possible,” says Pierre. “[These precautions] work together and are not substitutes for each other.”