The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is considering walking back on earlier advice they'd given about who needs to wear face masks, and recommending them for everyone. That means we all need to take a course in how exactly to wear face masks most effectively.
This information is especially important, given that there's a serious shortage of store-bought masks, both the paper ones and the N95 ones (which should be reserved for healthcare workers, who need the highest level of protection). As a result, some officials including — Eric Garcetti, the major of Los Angeles — are saying to wear any face covering when leaving the house. “The face coverings do not have to be hospital-grade but need to cover the nose and mouth,” a representative from L.A.’s Riverside County said. “For example, bandannas, fabric masks, and neck gaiters are acceptable. Fabric covers and bandannas can be washed and used again.”
We asked an ER doctor to walk us through how to wear a face mask or other type of covering. He gave us a five-point plan.
1. Wash your hands. First thing's first: Your hands need to be squeaky clean before you put on the mask, so wash and sanitize, says Darien Sutton, MD, an emergency physician at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. "This decreases the risk of contaminating yourself when you put a mask on." Along the same lines: Never touch the inside of your face covering as you're putting it on. That could get bacteria on the very area you're trying to keep clean. It's basically like biting your nails.
2. Cover from nose to chin. People often focus on covering their mouth. But you want to make sure your nose is tucked securely under the mask, and the material fits tightly under the chin too, Dr. Sutton says. Once it's on, take a few deep breaths in and out. You should be able to breathe through the material, but you shouldn't be able to detect any major air leaks. If, as you breathe in, you can tell that you're getting a ton of air through the bottom of your mask, tie it a little tighter in that area.
3. Remove it correctly. Taking off your mask is the trickiest part, explains Dr. Sutton. The most common mistake people make is peeling the mask off from the front. That's an easy way to contaminate yourself; you're basically just touching your face, the number one thing you're not supposed to do during this pandemic.
"Removal should always be from the back of your head," says Dr. Sutton. So, if you're taking off a surgical face mask, use the elastic straps around your head as a way of removal. To pull off a makeshift mask, such as a scarf or bandana, the same idea applies: Untie, unclip, or untuck from the back of your head.
4. Wash it. If you're using a mask made of reusable fabric, make sure you're washing it after each use, especially if you find yourself sneezing and coughing. The CDC recommends washing your "outside clothes" or any fabrics using the warmest appropriate water setting and to make sure to dry your items completely.
5. Wear it proudly. If you're not used to wearing them, donning a surgical mask in public may feel alarmist, especially if you're asymptomatic. But just like you can feel good about your efforts to social distance as a way to flatten the curve, you can feel good about your choice to mask up. “[Face masks] are a new mechanism of solidarity,” Dr. Sutton says. “You’re acting in the public’s interest to prevent spreading this virus.”