Now that the Center for Disease Control and other health authorities are recommending that we wear masks to protect others and ourselves during the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of people are wearing masks for the first time. With it being the first time for so many people, a lot of people are making mistakes. Some of them are amusing. Some of them are not helpful. Some are potentially dangerous. Trust me—you need tips on wearing a mask properly.
When the CDC says that everyone should wear a cloth face covering in public, they mean a mask whose primary purpose is to catch any germs that the wearer exhales. Surgical masks, cloth masks, scarves and bandanas, can do this about 90-95% of the time.
This means two things: First, for the CDC recommendations to work, everyone needs to wear a mask around each other, while maintaining all of the other social distancing rules. If one person doesn’t wear a mask, that means the other people around him aren’t protected from him even if they themselves are wearing masks.
The second tip on wearing a mask properly, all air exhaled needs to be exhaled through the masks. Probably no mask will be 100% in this regard, but if there are wide gaps that allow a significant percentage of exhaled to get around the mask, the mask won’t do its job well.
Cloth masks and surgical masks don’t necessarily do the best job of protecting the wearer unless they are designed for that purpose. Some are. If the masks are manufactured and not homemade, the package should give clear indications about the degree they can protect the wearer.
People who are vulnerable to possible serious complications if they catch COVID-19 might want to wear a mask whose primary purpose is to protect the wearer. These masks are often referred to as respirators. The N95 mask is one type of respirator, but there are other types. The US and the European Union have set standards for testing and determining how well masks can protect the wearer. The mask buying guide on this website can give you tips on what to look for.
Public health authorities have discouraged people from purchase disposable respirators because the medical facilities need these masks the most to protect frontline health workers.
But there are a number of other masks—frequently reusable but with replaceable filters—that aren’t likely to be used by medical facilities due to the challenges of keeping them sterile. But they could work quite well for someone wanting to wear them out on the street or in a store. Many of these fall under the category of “anti-pollution masks.” Some of these masks say that they protect against germs. You can check the mask links from this website and also enter “anti-pollution mask” or “smog mask” into your web browser.
Many of these masks come with exhalation valves. These valves are one way valves that allow exhaled air to bypass the filter, even as the filter still works against inhaled air. The implications of this is that if you wear a mask with an exhalation valve, you are still exposing other people to your germs. Sometimes I find a way to cover the exhalation valve with a piece of electrical tape (either from the inside or outside of the mask) so that all exhaled has to pass through the filter, too. Or I’ll cover the exhalation valve with a cloth or paper towel so that my exhaled air is filtered at least somewhat. The risk of doing this is that the mask might become more uncomfortable.
Other mistakes people make
When considering wearing a mask properly, you need to realize that germs may get caught on the front of the mask. This has a number of implications:
- If you touch the outside of the mask while wearing it, and then touch your eyes or face, the germs could infect you.
- Pulling the mask down from the face or over the chin, or hanging it around the neck to give yourself a “break” will only increase the chances that the germs from the front of the mask will infect you, especially if you put on and take off the mask frequently. Keep your mask on until you’re done using it, such as when you get home.
- And I shouldn’t have to say this, but I probably need to. If you’re wearing the mask over just your mouth, you’re not helping yourself or anyone. (Even if you think you’re just inhaling or exhaling through your mouth. Trust me, you’re not.)
Buying a mask online
There has been an explosion of retailers offering masks. The homemade look is a thing now. Etsy, in particular, has exploded with people selling masks, who rightfully see an opportunity where one had not previously existed. Here are some tips for making sure you have a mask that fits well.
You should measure from the top of the nosebridge to the bottom of the chin. The mask will likely be most comfortable and stable when resting on top of the nosebridge, but, essentially, you want to measure the are the mask will cover. Then, when shopping, keep in mind the top-to-bottom measurement. Masks that are too big or too small will not protect as well. Pleated masks may offer you more flexibility when fitting on your face. Also, I would highly recommend finding a mask with a bendable nosebridge wire, especially if you have a larger or more European nose.
The thinking behind the CDC’s recommendations for cloth masks is that they may not protect the wearer very well, but will do an excellent job protecting others from any germs the wearer may have. If you want a mask that will protect you effectively, you might consider a mask that has a pocket to put in filters. I’ve seen a lot of rectangular N95 filters available, but I don’t know how well they fit any given mask. For a filter to be effective, it needs to cover the entire area you will need to breathe through—otherwise some of the air you breathe will bypass the filter.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the CDC’s recommendations have suddenly made masks a popular accessory, with millions of people wearing masks in public. With so many people new to wearing them, wearing a mask properly is important, and is something that won’t immediately be obvious to everyone. I have little doubt that people will continue to find them a helpful accessory—if not for reducing disease, then for helping with allergies or pollution.