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There's a good chance you've never had to worry about properly covering your nose and mouth before now — unless you've been a patient in a hospital, or work in medicine or construction. However, surgical face masks as well as face cloth face coverings purchased online or created at home are becoming a necessity during the novel coronavirus pandemic that has affected Americans in all 50 states.
Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are currently recommending that everyone wear face coverings in public — and leaders in communities and states may also be mandating that you do so. Recently, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo passed new legislature asking residents to wear a face mask when social distancing measures aren't possible, including on public transport and inside essential businesses. Soon after, leaders in Southern California passed similar guidance with stronger recommendations for essential workers on the clock, as did officials in Pennsylvania.
But since most of us are new to wearing face masks, we don't always know how to wear and take care of them correctly. So Good Housekeeping assembled a panel of infectious disease specialists and academic doctors to walk you through how to properly wear a face mask. These experts from leading institutions and hospitals in three different states are sharing their tips for keeping your face mask as sanitary as possible, as well as instructions for how you put them on and take them off without exposing yourself to viral bacteria. Here's how to avoid common safety missteps when wearing a face mask.
The proper way to wear a medical or homemade mask:
Rodney Rohde, M.D., the associate dean for research for the College of Health Professions at Texas State University, says you should always wash your hands before handling any mask (this also applies to face coverings, too!). Handling the inside of your mask with unwashed hands, whether you've purchased it or you've sewn it yourself, adds to the risk that you could breathe in bacteria upon first use, effectively canceling out any kind of protection it may offer you in the first place.
Gonzalo Bearman, M.D., a hospital epidemiologist at VCU Health and the chair of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Virginia Commonwealth University, says this is the correct step-by-step process for wearing a medical mask or homemade cloth mask.
- Pick up your mask by its ear loops. Without touching the mask itself, bring the loops up to your ears, securing them as tightly as possible. If the mask is equipped with ties instead of loops, tie the upper pair around the rear crown of your head, then the second pair around the nape of your neck.
- Be sure that it covers your nose and your mouth. The mask keeps you from spewing any bacteria into the air by covering your nose and your mouth, Dr. Bearman explains. Dr. Rohde says wearing a medical mask properly may also provide slight protection if you hope to have a chance at protecting yourself from any nearby particles in your vicinity.
- Adjust the fit of the mask to ensure your chin is covered. You can pull the mask around the base of your chin, if possible. Tucking your mask beneath the chin is a surefire way to prevent the risk of having to adjust it when you leave the house, Dr. Bearman adds.
- Secure the mask around the bridge of your nose. Some masks come equipped with a metal tab just where the bridge should be (if you feel a metal tab on your chin, you'll know your mask is upside down). Be sure to pinch this into place so that the top of the mask feels snug to your face. Even if there is no metal tab, try your best to ensure it won't slip down your nose later.
- Make sure to adjust where needed. Surgical masks cannot filter out all bacteria, unlike N95 masks used by healthcare professionals, so you shouldn't worry too much about gaps between your face and the mask. "You just want to make sure it best fits your face and has the least amount of gaps for air to filter through as possible," Dr. Bearman explains.
Robert Amler, M.D., the dean of the school of health sciences and practices at New York Medical College, says there's another way to ensure your face mask is snug. "Whether it’s a surgical mask or cloth covering, once you put it on and secure it, twist your head back and forth, sideways, up and down to see if the fit remains snug in all directions," he shares.
When taking off the mask, you'll want to be sure to handle it only by the same loops or ties as you did when you put it on. "Try not to touch the front or inside of the face mask when you're taking it off or when you're wearing it, as this can contaminate your hand with any bacteria you've picked up while out in public," Dr. Bearman explains.
Which side of a surgical mask is the outside?
If you have purchased a medical-grade surgical mask, you may be wondering which side of the mask is supposed to be on the outside. While not every manufacturer follows the same style, Dr. Rohde says that usually the side of the mask that is colored is the exterior of the mask. "If you examine the mask closely, you might be able to see one side of the mask may actually say 'internal' or 'external' which helps you understand which part goes against your face," he explains. "For most of the surgical masks I've worn working in public health, the coloring is facing outwards."
How to wear a DIY face covering:
If you don't have access to a surgical mask or a hand-sewn mask, a cloth face covering will still be able to prevent you from spreading bacteria via respiratory droplets in public spaces. "Using a bandana is probably better than nothing if you don't have a proper surgical mask or a sewn face mask," Dr. Bearman says. "None of the masks are medical grade, and any gaps are less important, as these are meant to prevent droplets and not aerosols. COVID-19 has been shown to transmit with bigger particles in droplets and not via aerosols in everyday spaces outside of hospitals." Plus, a face covering might act as a human "dog cone" in that it reminds you to avoid touching your face.
Dr. Amler says you should fit a cloth covering just as you would handle a mask. "Cloth coverings, like surgical masks, should be fitted snugly around your nose and mouth," he explains. "Again, like a surgical mask, a cloth covering needs to be secured in the back of your head so it sits snugly against your face."
How should I clean my face mask?
After you've safely removed your mask or coverings by handling its ties or loops, Dr. Bearman says you should dispose of any surgical masks, as these are made for single use only. You shouldn't be attempting to sanitize surgical masks at home; some healthcare providers may be doing so due to supply shortages, but all experts do not recommend you do so at home.
There isn't any concrete data on how you should wash cloth coverings, but Carolyn Forte, Director of the Good Housekeeping Institute Cleaning Lab, suggests that all face masks should be washed with hot water in the washing machine, and tumble dried on high heat.
If you need to store your cloth covering at home before washing it, put it in a dry paper bag if possible. Dr. Bearman explains that the moisture within the face masks need to dry out, and it may not do so in a closed box. Dr. Rohde adds that it's best to have two or three cloth masks that you can cycle between in order to avoid having to wash your cloth mask each and every time you head outside.
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