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.
“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.”
“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.
“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.
“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.”
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 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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.”
And to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don’t miss these 40 Things You Should Never Touch Due to Coronavirus.