How to Wear a Face Mask — Your Guide to the Dos and Don’ts

Face masks can help stop the spread of the coronavirus but only if you wear them correctly. A NewYork-Presbyterian infectious diseases doctor explains how.

Picture of a white face mask with little black stars

Face masks have become essential accessories in the effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But it’s critical to wear them and handle them correctly to protect yourself and others.

“Face masks are designed to provide a barrier between your airway and the outside world,” says Dr. Ole Vielemeyer, medical director of Weill Cornell ID Associates and Travel Medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and Weill Cornell Medicine. “By wearing a mask that covers your mouth and nose, you will reduce the risk of serving as the source of disease spread by trapping your own droplets in the mask, and also reduce the risk of getting sick via droplets that contain the coronavirus by blocking access to your own airways.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises everyone to wear a face mask in public when social distancing is hard to maintain — such as in grocery stores and pharmacies and on public transportation. From New York and New Jersey to Hawaii, a number of states now require face masks in public.

They’re especially important in stopping the spread of the coronavirus because people can carry and spread the virus even when they are not exhibiting symptoms. “Presymptomatic and asymptomatic patients could well account for half, maybe up to 80%, of transmissions,” Dr. Vielemeyer says.

But for a mask to be effective, it has to be used correctly, he says. Here, Dr. Vielemeyer shares with Health Matters what you need to know about wearing a face mask, from how to put it on properly to how to clean it — tips he says you’ll need for the foreseeable future.

“The pandemic is far from over,” Dr. Vielemeyer adds. “We will need protection for ourselves and for others through several means, including the use of face masks, for some time to come, likely months. Thus, developing a safe and sensible routine around the use of face masks is a good idea.”

Choose the Right Mask

Wear a cloth face mask made of cotton or similar material. It provides a physical barrier that helps reduce spread of the virus via droplets from your mouth and nose but allows breathing through the fabric. These masks can be purchased or made at home. Typically, medical masks (simple surgical masks) can be used as well, if available, although the CDC is currently asking people to save them for healthcare workers. Medical masks are commonly seen on doctors, nurses, dentists, and coughing patients to prevent the spread of disease via droplets. The N95 respirator mask prevents inhalation of tiny airborne particles, and it should be reserved for healthcare workers because they have close contact treating patients, Dr. Vielemeyer says.

Cover Your Mouth and Nose With a Snug Fit

A face mask is designed to provide a barrier between your respiratory system and the outside world. Therefore, it must cover your mouth and nose, and it must fit snugly but comfortably on the face. Most masks either have loops or straps that go behind the back of the head or around the ears for a snug fit. Many commercial masks come in different sizes, and you should pick the one that fits you best. Masks that are too small and masks that are too big with gaps between your face and the mask, are less effective. Masks that don’t cover both your mouth and nose, because they are too small or not properly designed, should not be worn. Although it’s common to see a person wearing their mask so it only covers their mouth, this provides practically zero protection.

Put Your Mask On and Take It Off Correctly

Have clean hands when you put on your mask. When you return home, wash your hands before removing your mask and take if off from the back, handling it by the ear loops or straps. Make sure to put the mask in a dedicated safe place, such as a bag, until you wash it, and then disinfect your hands again. If there are several members in the household, make sure only you handle your own mask.

Don’t Touch Your Mask After It’s On

Be sure to put on your mask properly, making sure it fits snugly, especially around your nose, and securing it around the back of your head or behind your ears. This way you won’t have to adjust your mask later, because you could contaminate your mask if you fiddle with it when your hands aren’t clean, and you could contaminate your hands as well. Resist the temptation to touch your face or mask if your skin feels itchy. Most of the time, the itch will go away even if you don’t scratch. If you inadvertently touch your mask, clean your hands immediately afterward. Having a small bottle of hand sanitizer in your pocket is very helpful — in case you absolutely do have to touch your mask.

Don’t Lower Your Guard

Wearing a face mask is only one means of protecting yourself and society. It does not replace other safeguards — but just adds to them. Social distancing remains one of the most important actions to protect yourself from getting COVID-19 as well as to flatten the curve of the epidemic. A face mask is not a “free pass” to abandon social distancing or drop other protective measures. Remember, droplets land on surfaces, and the virus can be transmitted by touching contaminated surfaces, such as doorknobs and shopping carts, so frequent hand-washing remains very important.

Wash Your Cloth Mask Frequently

Wash your cloth mask frequently, ideally every day you wear it. Masks should be washed and dried at a high temperature. Boiling them separately for 10 minutes with some detergent can be a useful option. Using bleach to decontaminate them can also be useful. Before washing them, masks should be stored inside a zip-close plastic bag and not mixed together with your other laundry or with your clean masks. It’s advisable to have at least five masks so you can wash them properly between uses. Also, be sure not to share masks with other household members. Medical masks are disposable and designed to be discarded after use.

Take Steps at Home to Keep Your Glasses From Fogging Up

A lot of people struggle with their glasses getting fogged up when they wear masks. The best prevention is to have a snug fit of the mask on the bridge of the nose. This way, no air will escape through that route and cause fogging that could impair your vision. Test your mask’s fit at home before you leave by forcefully breathing several times. If your glasses fog, adjust the mask (tighten the fit around the bridge of your nose) and test again until no fogging occurs, and your view remains clear.

Don’t Put a Mask on a Baby

Babies and toddlers under the age of 2 should not wear face masks, but children should. It is very important for adult caregivers to wear masks when asking children age 2 and older to wear them. This way, the child’s mask will more likely stay on, and the child won’t be scared. Babies and toddlers under the age of 2 cannot really understand all the instructions, so mask use is not effective. Fortunately, young children are at a very low risk of getting seriously ill from COVID-19. It is important to find masks that fit properly, even for your children.

Wear a Mask at Home If You’re Sick

For people who are not showing symptoms, generally there is no reason to wear a mask in the home. However, if a household member has either a confirmed COVID-19 infection, or has classic symptoms of the disease, the affected person should self-isolate within the home as much as possible, using a separate room and bathroom, if available. When interacting with other household members, such as providing care and bringing food, masks should be worn by both the affected and unaffected household members. Remember, if you have typical symptoms of the disease, you must self-quarantine at home, and you must not go out in public at all.

Send the Right Message

Wearing a mask sends a positive message in the fight against COVID-19.

“In 2020, masks worn by front-line workers have already become a symbol of bravery, stamina, and even heroism,” Dr. Vielemeyer says. “Maybe, when they are worn by everyone, 2020 will also be the year in which masks become a symbol of reemerging from isolation, of reuniting, and of understanding how much we are all in this together. We will be wearing masks for a while, hopefully while shaping a better tomorrow.”

Dr. Ole Vielemeyer is associate professor of clinical medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine and is medical director of Weill Cornell ID Associates and Travel Medicine, which is part of the Division of Infectious Diseases at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and Weill Cornell Medicine. Aside from his passion for clinical infectious diseases (including travel medicine) and for teaching, his interests lie in developing clinical research projects aimed at improving the transition from inpatient to outpatient care of patients with chronic infections.

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