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How to Wear a Mask and Why It's Effective To Protect Against COVID-19

Masks are a powerful tool for prevention – if you wear them right.

When two hairstylists at a Springfield, Missouri, Great Clips tested positive for COVID-19, health officials waited for an outbreak among their customers and co-workers. But there wasn’t one. Why?

The hairstylists, customers and co-workers were required to wear face masks during appointments. Experts say this incident illustrates how effective masks can be in reducing the spread of COVID-19.

But, for maximum effectiveness, how you wear your mask or face covering is crucial, say BJC infection prevention consultant Cassandra Sherman and Washington University infectious disease physician Hilary Babcock, MD, medical director of infection prevention for BJC HealthCare.

Why a mask works

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is carried in respiratory droplets expelled from the nose and/or mouth when we cough, sneeze, talk, laugh or sing.

“Wearing a mask provides protection for you and for those around you,” says Dr. Babcock. “It minimizes the spread of respiratory droplets from an infected person and it also minimizes the virus-containing particles that can reach your lungs through your nose and mouth.”

This is especially important if you encounter someone who is already infected and hasn’t yet developed symptoms or is asymptomatic.

Sherman and Dr. Babcock emphasize that getting the maximum protection from a face covering depends on wearing it properly. They offered tips on how to wear masks correctly and critical mistakes to avoid.

Mask basics

Out in the community, you don’t need a hospital-grade “N-95” mask to reduce your infection risk, say Sherman and Dr. Babcock. Disposable masks or reusable home-made or store-bought cloth masks work well — if they have a few key elements.

They should:

  • fit snugly, but comfortably, against your face
  • be secured with ties or ear loops
  • have multiple layers of fabric or filtering materials
  • allow for breathing without restriction
  • be washable without damage or changing shape
  • always cover both your nose and mouth

When removing the mask, it’s best to handle it by the ear loops or ties only. Cloth masks should be washed daily if possible and always once they are visibly soiled.

While bandanas pulled up over the face are a better option than no covering, masks that fit under your chin are better than scarves or bandanas that hang loose below your chin, says Dr. Babcock.

When to wear your mask

Social distancing, or “physical distancing,” means keeping a safe space between yourself and other people not from your household to avoid the spread of disease. In the case of COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends keeping a distance of 6 feet.

Masks are essential when social distancing is difficult, especially in places like stores, bars, offices or churches, says Sherman.

“Outdoors, masks should be prioritized for use when in close contact with other people, like during group travel or during close conversations,” she says. Masks can be taken off at home and when eating, as long as social distancing is maintained.

Although there are people who can’t wear masks — such as children under age 2 or those with severe breathing problems or other medical issues — most people can wear a mask all day with no problems.

“While it’s an adjustment for most Americans and can take some getting used to, there are generally no negative impacts from wearing a mask all day,” says Sherman. “Many professionals have been required to wear masks throughout their day for decades with no negative consequences — construction workers, health care workers, surgeons, lab professionals, for instance.”

Pro tips

Irritation can occur if you’re not used to wearing a mask or have sensitive skin.

There are some steps you can take to help reduce mask irritation as you transition into wearing a mask more frequently, says Sherman. “Wash your face before and after wearing a mask. Apply moisturizer after washing your face. A dimethicone-based lotion can also act as a skin protectant. Also, consider not wearing makeup under your mask and drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and naturally moisturized.”

If your mask causes irritation, Sherman suggests putting on an anti-chafing cream or stick, like runners or cyclists use. It’s also safe to remove your mask for a quick break every few hours.

You can purchase “ear savers” to reduce pressure from elastic ear-loops.

Also, says Sherman, it’s important to fully take the mask off when not using it, rather than hanging it from one ear, putting it on your forehead or pulling it below your chin. Not only can this stretch out the material, resulting in a poor fit later on, but it also increases the risk of collecting bacteria as it becomes more exposed to the environment and more areas of your face.

Finally, you can increase the effectiveness of your mask by encouraging others to wear masks, too. The CDC says that evidence shows face coverings are a powerful tool in controlling the spread of the virus. “All Americans,” it says, “have a responsibility to protect themselves, their families and their communities.”

Learn more about wearing face masks:

What types of masks to avoid

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