March 1, 2021
For almost a year now, wearing a face mask has become a necessary part of going out in public. Since the recommendation first came about, scientists and researchers have continued to learn more about how face masks can help protect us from COVID-19. In this blog, we’re taking a look at face masks, how they work and how you can properly wear and care for yours.
The Basics: How Does a Cloth Face Mask Work?
At the beginning of pandemic, it was recommended for everyone to wear a cloth face mask in public settings where social distancing wasn’t possible. This was to limit the amount of respiratory droplets that were dispersed into the air from people around you sneezing, coughing, or even just talking. At the time, it was believed that wearing a mask would only protect those around you but not the wearer themselves. That’s why it was so important for everyone to wear masks so we could collectively help protect one another.
In November 2020, the CDC reported that wearing a cloth mask can also help reduce the wearer’s exposure to the virus.1 While there is still more to be learned, the CDC noted that the reduced exposure is due to filtration of particles through the mask. So the next time you shop for a new mask, look for one that is made of multiple layers of fabric and fabric that has a high thread count.
Is Double Masking Necessary?
If you have ever worn a mask and noticed a side gap where the mask doesn’t conform to your face, you’re not alone. That gap is reducing your protection as it is increasing your exposure to respiratory droplets that are in the air. In January 2021, the CDC performed an experiment that tested how effective modifications to a surgical mask, such as double masking, can be in providing further protection from COVID-19.
The experiment found that double masking (aka – wearing a cloth mask over a surgical mask) or knotting the ear bands of a surgical mask and tucking in the extra material so that it is flush to your face can reduce exposure to viral particles by 95 percent.2 The CDC did note that both people in the experiment would need to be using one of the methods described above that provides a better fitting mask in order to reach that level of reduced exposure. Of the two ways you can improve the efficiency of your mask, the CDC found that layering a cloth mask over a surgical mask provides the best fit.
How to Properly Wear a Mask
Before you put on a mask, wash your hands for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer to limit the germs on your hands coming into contact with your mask or your face. Put your face mask(s) on and make sure it covers both your mouth and nose. If your mask isn’t covering your nose and you happen to catch a whiff of fresh cut grass and you sneeze, you may have exposed others to the virus, if you happen to have it. Help everyone out and wear your mask properly.
Make sure your mask fits snuggly to your face and allows you to breathe easily. Once your mask is on, try not to touch it, and if you have to, wash your hands or use hand sanitizer beforehand. And since you’re washing your hands so much, this might be a good time to invest in a thick hand cream to help combat dry skin!
Wearing a Mask in Colder Weather
Whether you’re outside skiing, shoveling snow, or running errands, your mask is bound to become wet. Wet masks provide less protection from COVID-19 and are harder to breathe through. If your mask becomes wet, store it in a plastic bag until you can wash your mask and put on a fresh mask. If you’re wearing a winter scarf or ski mask, remember to layer these over your protective face mask.
How to Take Care of a Cloth Mask
It’s recommended that you wash your cloth mask after each day you wear it. If you’re running errands and want to take your mask off between stops, that’s okay, but properly store your mask in the meantime. Fold your mask in half so that the side that was touching your mouth is folded inward. Place the mask in a paper or plastic bag for the time being. Avoid putting your mask in your pocket, or hanging it from anywhere it your car, like a rearview mirror. Not only is it illegal in some states to hang anything from your review mirror that may obstruct your view, the air blowing from the fan or air conditioner in your car can disperse respiratory droplets from your mask into the air.
While cleaning your cloth mask in a washing machine is preferred, you can hand-wash it in a pinch. Ideally, your mask will be washed after every day you wear it. But, use good judgement. If you were out in a public setting and feel like you may have come in contact with something or someone who may have contaminated your mask, it’s always a good idea to safely remove the one you are wearing, place it in a bag, and put a new mask on. As always, wash your hands or use hand sanitizer before AND after doing this!
Back to cleaning - if you can dry your cloth mask in a dryer, use the highest heat setting. If you don’t have access to a dryer, placing your mask on a drying rack in sunlight is a good alternative. It should go without saying, but you should refrain from trying to sanitize your mask in the microwave. This may lead to the cloth mask catching fire.
Even though we’re all limiting our time in public settings, it is a good idea to have at least two cloth masks so that you can wear one while the other is being washed. And, there are more and more options for masks made of fabrics that feature our favorite cartoon characters or seasonal prints and patterns. Go ahead, order a few!
We know this change to wearing masks in public is strange and uncomfortable at first, but it’s meant to help everyone. The more that we can all be aware and adapt to our surroundings, the safer we can all become. For more information on our response to COVID-19, click here.
Originally posted June 8, 2020. Updated December 10, 2020 and March 1, 2021.
This content was medically reviewed by Dr. Chris Howard, DO.
1 Scientific Brief: Community Use of Cloth Masks to Control the Spread of SARS-CoV-2. Last Updated November 20, 2020. Accessed December 3, 2020.
2 Maximizing Fit for Cloth and Medical Procedure Masks to Improve Performance and Reduce SARS-CoV-2 Transmission and Exposure, 2021. Last Updated February 10, 2021. Accessed February 16, 2021.