The Do’s and Don'ts of Wearing a Face Mask During the COVID-19 Outbreak

With cases still rising, new guidelines call for covering up with non-medical masks. Here’s the deal

Face mask hanging on wall hooks.

To mask … or not to mask?

If you’ve been out in public the past few weeks, it’s certainly been a question you’ve debated, if not the question. And you’re not alone in your confusion––even the experts can’t quite seem to agree. 

On February 29, the U.S. Surgeon General tweeted that face masks were ineffective at preventing transmission of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the highly contagious new coronavirus. 

Fast-forward to April 3, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends that people wear “cloth face coverings” (which, semantics aside, is still a mask) in public. The Surgeon General is even featured in his own face covering DIY video on the CDC website.

So, why the change of heart? The short answer: It’s complicated.

“At this time, the true effectiveness of face covers and surgical masks at preventing COVID-19 transmission and acquisition is unknown,” explains Brandon Brown, M.P.H, Ph.D., an epidemiologist at the University of California, Riverside. 

There is some new evidence that surgical masks catch many of the respiratory droplets of seasonal viruses exhaled by sick people, and therefore may help limit the spread of certain viral infections. But the research was done before the new coronavirus outbreak.

“Still, the absence of evidence does not mean the evidence of absence,” says Brown. 

In other words, cloth coverings and surgical masks could prevent the transmission of COVID-19, but experts don’t know for sure quite yet. 

What isn’t being debated is the fact that everyday individuals are adopting the “better safe than sorry” mindset and covering their faces when they go out for a walk or to pick up essentials at the store. 

Before you search for a suitable face covering of your own, be sure to follow these do’s and don’ts.

Do: Choose the Right Materials

Store-bought or homemade face coverings are an effective way to do your part to help flatten the outbreak curve. They’ll provide some protection against large respiratory droplets that may be carrying the virus. More important, they’ll stop you from touching your face.

“Recommending that all people wear a face cover when going out in public prevents us from touching our nose and mouth with unwashed hands when these face covers are used properly,” explains Brown. He also likes that they serve as a visual cue for others to cover up.

Clothing companies and neighborhood sewing groups have swooped in to help get suitable masks in the hands of the general public. But you don’t need to spend money or seek out a seamstress to protect yourself. If you have an old t-shirt or even a bandana or tea towel, you have the makings of a basic shield, notes the CDC.

Here are a few DIY videos to check out: 

  • The CDC’s recommendation, which requires any common cloth and rubber bands 
  • This sewn mask from YouTube blogger Erica Arndt, which takes just a few minutes to stitch together
  • This no-sew tutorial from the YouTube page Japanese Creations, which calls for two hair ties, and a scarf or cloth

If you really want to be thorough, initial studies weighing the pros and cons of different types of materials for DIY masks favor “quilter’s cotton,” which is a heavyweight, tightly woven fabric with a thread count of 180 or more.

One material you may have heard about, but that Brown advises against, is a HEPA filter—the kind you might find in a vacuum bag or a furnace filter. “HEPA filters have particles that can potentially damage the lungs,” he says, “so we need to be sure what we are using does not have a long-term negative impact.”

Don’t: Seek Out a Medical Mask 

These professional grade masks, which include N95 respirators and surgical masks, are desperately needed by health care workers and first responders. 

In fact, the potential rush from the public to acquire medical masks is one reason government officials were slow in recommending that the public cover up, says Brown. 

“The mask shortage we have right now is putting these health professionals at risk,” Dr. Brown says. “It is possible that if a universal mask recommendation was made early on, we’d be in worse shape for mask availability than we are now.”

As it stands, N95 respirators, which are tight-fitting masks designed to filter out 95 percent of particles in the air, are the only proven method (coupled with frequent handwashing and disinfection) to prevent doctors and nurses from getting sick from COVID-19. 

It's worth pointing out that N95 masks are not fun to wear. They can hold in heat and fit so snugly that they can become annoying. 

While surgical masks (also in short supply) might seem like a safer or more legitimate face-covering option than, say, a scarf, they are loose-fitting and only provide barrier protection against large droplets. 

Do: Wear Your Mask Like a Pro

The most important feature any face mask should have, according to Brown, is that it covers your nose and mouth. That’s it.

But you also have to be smart about the way you put it on and take it off. Follow these steps from the World Health Organization:

  • Clean your hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub before putting on your mask or face covering.
  • Pull the mask over your nose and under your chin for the best coverage. Make sure there are no gaps between your face and the mask.
  • Don’t touch the mask once you have it on. If you must touch it, clean your hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based rub first. 
  • When removing the mask, don’t touch the front. Carefully remove your mask or face covering using the straps. 
  • Wash your hands (or use hand sanitizer) immediately after removing the mask. 

Remember, once you take off your mask, you either need to toss it out (in a closed waste bin) or run it through the washing machine. 

Don’t: Ease Up on Other Preventive Steps

The advice to don a mask comes with a warning: “Do not decrease the physical distance between you and others just because you are wearing a face cover,” says Brown.

Masks do run the risk of giving people a false sense of security. “If I had to rank precautionary measures,” he says, “I’d put handwashing first, then staying at home, then physical distancing when outside your home and wearing a face cover, and then finally disinfecting surfaces daily.”