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

With Omicron rapidly spreading, it’s time to refine your mask-wearing skills and upgrade your masks. A NewYork-Presbyterian infectious diseases expert explains how.

Woman wearing N95 mask and showing how to wear it.
Woman wearing N95 mask and showing how to wear it.

As COVID-19 cases surge across the country, health experts are urging people to wear masks, especially given the extremely contagious Omicron variant.

A number of states that had relaxed mask mandates have reinstated them in indoor public spaces. At the same time, some health experts are encouraging people, even those who are vaccinated, to wear masks that are more protective than cloth masks, including respirators like the N95 or KN95, a surgical mask, or double masking with a surgical mask under a cloth mask. Several European countries now require medical-grade masks in public settings.

“Now more than ever it is prudent to use face coverings and to select the appropriate protective gear that fits well and is effective in blocking transmission,” says Dr. Ole Vielemeyer, medical director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. “Fortunately, good-quality masks have once again become readily available for everybody, including surgical masks as well as KN95 and N95 respirators, and those are now the preferred way to stay protected when there is risk of transmission.”

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

“Two years into the pandemic, it is still not over,” Dr. Vielemeyer says. “We will continue to need protection for ourselves and for others through several means, including the use of face masks. Thus, getting into a safe and sensible face mask routine is a good idea.”

Choose the Right Mask

For low-risk activities, such as going for a stroll or attending an uncrowded outdoor event, it’s OK to wear a cloth face mask, made of cotton or similar material, that is made of two or more layers, Dr. Vielemeyer says. But for more protection, surgical masks, also called medical masks, are the better option, if they are well-fitting. Both types provide a physical barrier that helps reduce spread of the virus via droplets from your mouth and nose but allows breathing through the fabric. You can make your mask more effective and improve its fit by double masking — wearing the cloth mask over the surgical mask.

For optimal protection, high-filtration respirators like the KN95, N95 and KF94 are most protective and prevent inhalation of even tiny airborne particles. While respirators were scarce and needed to be reserved for healthcare workers when the pandemic began, they are fortunately now back in sufficient supply, Dr. Vielemeyer says. He recommends them for high-risk situations when there is extended possible exposure, like traveling on planes, subways, or trains; taking care of someone who is sick with COVID; or spending time in a crowded indoor space — or if you are immunocompromised or have a health condition that puts you at high risk of getting sick from COVID-19.

Don’t Wear Bandanas

Refrain from wearing bandanas and single-layer neck gaiters because it is not clear how protective they are, and don’t use a scarf as a mask. Face masks with a valve or vent also are discouraged because they don’t prevent the spread of COVID-19 to others. While such masks may protect you, respiratory droplets from the wearer can be expelled into the air and could reach other people.

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. Many masks come in different sizes, including children’s 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.

If your surgical mask is too loose, tie knots in the ear loops for a better fit. A cloth mask should have adjustable ear loops or straps so it always fits well. Wearing a surgical mask under a cloth mask also can improve the fit, along with choosing masks with an adjustable nose wire to reduce gaps in the top. Masks that don’t cover both your mouth and nose, because they are too small or not properly designed, should not be worn. Choosing the right size is also important so that you can wear your mask for an extended period without getting uncomfortable.

Although it’s common to see people wearing a mask so it only covers their mouth, this provides practically zero protection for the wearer or others.

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 it off from the back, handling it by the ear loops or straps. Make sure to either discard your mask or, if it is a cloth mask, put it in a dedicated safe place, such as a sealable bag, until you wash it. 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

Ensuring your mask fits properly means you won’t have to adjust it later — 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 repeatedly, even if your skin feels itchy. Most of the time, the itch will go away even if you don’t scratch. Having a small bottle of hand sanitizer in your pocket is very helpful, in case you have to touch your mask.

Don’t Lower Your Guard

Wearing a face mask is only one means of protecting yourself and others. It does not replace other safeguards but adds to them. Social distancing remains one of the most important actions to protect yourself from getting COVID-19 as well as to curb the epidemic. A face mask is not a “free pass” to abandon social distancing or drop other protective measures. Remember, droplets land on surfaces such as doorknobs and shopping carts, so frequent handwashing remains very important. And, of course, vaccination with a booster is still the most effective way to protect yourself as well as others.

Take Care of Your Masks

Respirators like N95s and medical (surgical) masks are disposable and should be thrown away after they become wet or dirty or after a day of use. (The CDC recommends throwing away disposable masks after wearing them once.)

If you use a cloth mask, wash it frequently, ideally every day you wear it. Masks should be washed and dried at a high temperature or air-dried. Boiling them for 10 minutes with some detergent or using bleach to decontaminate them can also be useful. It’s advisable to have at least half a dozen masks so you can wash them properly between uses. Also, be sure not to share masks with other household members.

Take Steps at Home to Keep Your Glasses From Fogging Up

A lot of people struggle with their eyeglasses fogging up when they wear masks. The best prevention is to have a snug mask fit around 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 taking a few deep breaths. If your glasses fog up, adjust the mask (tighten the fit around the bridge of your nose) and test again until no fogging occurs and your view remains clear. Also, cleaning your glasses every day helps, since small dust particles make it easier for warm, humid air to stick.

Don’t Put a Mask on a Baby

Babies and toddlers under the age of 2 should not wear face masks, but children older than 2 should. It is very important for adult caregivers to wear masks when asking children to do the same. This way, the child’s mask will more likely stay on. Babies and toddlers under age 2 aren’t able to understand all the instructions, so mask use is not effective. It is important to find masks that fit properly for your children.

Wear a Mask at Home If You’re Sick

If a household member either has 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. The CDC recommends that the affected person wear a mask for 10 days when around others at home or in public. Remember, if you have typical symptoms of the disease or a positive test, you must not go out in public at all. Follow CDC guidelines on the duration of self-isolation.

Send the Right Message

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

“We are entering our third year of the pandemic with a new, highly contagious variant predominating,” Dr. Vielemeyer says. “When masks are worn by everyone, young and old, vaccinated or not, masks can become a symbol of reemerging from isolation, of reuniting, and of understanding how much we are all in this together.”

Additional Resources

Dr. Ole Vielemeyer is an associate professor of clinical medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine and is the medical director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. Aside from his passion for the field of 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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