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17 Mistakes You're Making With Face Masks

Wondering how to best use a face mask to reduce your exposure to coronavirus? We've got you covered.
woman with a surgical mask on her face against SARS-cov-2.

Now that the CDC recommends face masks, and some states are even mandating them, you'll want to wear yours properly, so it can protect you and others from COVID-19. Follow this expert advice to avoid making the most common mistakes when wearing face masks.

1

You're Cross-Contaminating

A woman hands in blue rubber gloves holding spare surgical mask protecting from viruses in public transportation
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"Once you wear a mask once, it's contaminated by whatever. If you take the mask off and sit it on another surface, that surface is now contaminated," says Geoffrey Mount Varner, MD, MPH, FACEP, a Maryland-based emergency medicine physician.

The Rx: "It's best to use one-use masks and once they are taken off, dispose of them," says Mount Varner. "If you use a cloth or hand-made mask, it needs to be washed and sanitized between wears."

2

You're Choosing the Wrong One for You

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"When choosing a mask, experts say focus on the fabric, fit and breathability," reports NPR. "How well a mask protects is a function of both what it's made of and how well it seals to your face. But if you can't breathe well through it, then you're less likely to keep it on."

The Rx: "The tightness of the weave is really important. That's the first thing I would ask people to look into," Supratik Guha, a professor of molecular engineering at the University of Chicago, tells NPR, which adds: "To check your fabric, hold it up to a light: If you can easily see the outline of the individual fibers, it's not going to make a great filter. Researchers say a tight-weave 100% cotton is a good bet."

3

You're Touching the Mask With Dirty Hands

woman wearing a hygiene protective mask to protect her self from coronavirus disease
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"If you contaminate your mask even from the outside, you can get easily infected," says physician Dimitar Marinov, MD, Ph.D.

"Taking off your face mask and then reapplying it with contaminated hands can move the bacteria or virus directly into the breathable area," says Jared Heathman, MD, a Texas-based psychiatrist.

The Rx: Make sure your hands are clean before adjusting the mask. It's best to avoid touching your face in general.

4

You're Wearing the Same Mask All Day

Woman in city street wearing KN95 FFP2 mask protective for spreading of disease virus SARS-CoV-2.
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"A mask should be changed or disinfected as often as every 2 hours, otherwise viral particles can accumulate on it and you are more likely to breathe them in," says Marinov.

5

You're Not Fully Covered

woman in a medical mask on her face during the pandemic outdoors
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"I see many people wearing their masks below the nose," says Marinov. "While it will still protect others if you are coughing or sneezing, it will not protect you from COVID-19 if someone else nearby is infected and coughs."

The Rx: Once the mask is fitted properly on the nose, it should be extended so that it fits right under your chin, says Angela Abernathy, a New York City-based dentist. "This is to ensure maximum coverage."

Adds Heathman: "The purpose is to breathe through the mask, not around the mask."

6

You're Putting It on Too Late

African American man wearing red pullover, out and about in the city streets during the day, putting on a face mask against air pollution and covid19 coronavirus.
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Without the mask, you're susceptible to inhaling the particles in the air. "You must put it on ahead of entering an area of risk," says Rafael Lugo, a general surgeon and owner/CEO at Lugo Surgical Group in The Woodlands, Texas. 

7

You're Too Trusting

Elderly woman with protective face mask/gloves talking with a friend
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You may think "the mask is 100 percent reliable," says Lugo. Not so. "It is meant to decrease the risk. Ultimately, social distancing is king."

"A surgical mask is not designed to provide a barrier between your respiratory system and all viruses and bacteria," says Leann Poston, MD, a physician with Invigor Medical in New York City. "Social distancing helps protect you from viral particles sneezed and coughed into the air by people who may not know that they are sick yet."

8

You're Spraying It With Chemicals

reuse surgical face mask by using alcohol spray to kill bacteria and virus but that make waterproof layer no worked
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"Applying any chemical like Lysol to the mask that makes it wet is bad," says Lugo. "You can spray it to sanitize lightly, and then put it in a bag. Do not saturate it."

9

You're Getting the Mask Wet

woman in yellow rainwear with mask for protection coronavirus.
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"Once the mask becomes wet, it becomes less effective and needs to be changed to a dry one," says Abernathy. Avoid touching the mask with your tongue. "Touching the mask with your tongue makes it wet and more porous," advises Lugo. "You want the mask to stay dry."

10

You're Wearing It Wrong

First person view of a woman holding face mask
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"Masks have a front (that is usually colored, textured or has the brand name) and a back (that is usually white and more cotton-like)," says Abernathy. "The back side should be touching your face. It is designed this way so that particles are properly filtered."

11

You Think All Masks Are the Same

Corona virus prevetion face mask protection N95 masks and medical surgical masks at home .
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Different masks have different uses. "An N95 mask filters out 95% of bacteria and viruses if they are correctly fitted to your face," says Poston. This is what healthcare workers are using to better protect themselves when caring for sick patients. "A surgical mask is designed to contain your droplets to help protect those around you."

12

You're Taking it Off Wrong

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When you're done wearing the mask for the day, there's a chance you could contaminate yourself taking it off. The bacteria on your mask could get on your hands, and then it would spread. 

The Rx: Wash your hands before taking off the mask. Take it off my unlooping it from your ears first and then either throw it out (if it's a one time use) or keep it in its special place.

13

You're Wearing the Wrong Size

man in red sweater using medical mask
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If the mask you're wearing doesn't fit, it's not as effective. If it's too small, you're either leaving your nose or chin exposed. Virus particles can get in through the side openings if it's too loose. The mask should be snug against your face! This goes for kid masks as well. 

14

You're Putting it on Wrong

woman put on a fabric handmade mask on her face
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Your hands should be clean before you originally put the mask on. If not, you get the participles from your hands on the previously sterile mask. For example, your fingers can touch and contaminate the inside part of the mask. 

15

You're Cleaning it Wrong

Homemade community face masks from colorful cotton against coronavirus pandemic hanging on a clothesline
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If you use a cloth mask, not washing it is the same as wearing a contaminated mask. A washing machine with the hot water setting on, using your normal detergent should be sufficient for cleaning it. Once clean, the mask should be thoroughly dried, on a clothesline or dryer.

16

You're No Longer Social Distancing

Retired couple walking in a park under quarantine during coronavirus outbreak
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You should wear a mask when you go outside, but you should still only go outside for essential services—like groceries or work. Wearing a mask might make you more likely to go outside for social reasons, as you feel safer, but self-isolating is still safer.

17

You're Wearing One When You Shouldn't

Woman coughing.
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Says the CDC: "Cloth face coverings should not be worn by:

  • Children younger than 2 years old
  • Anyone who has trouble breathing
  • Anyone who is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the cloth face covering without assistance"

And to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these Things You Should Never Do During the Coronavirus Pandemic.

Emilia Paluszek
Emilia specializes in human biology and psychology at the University at Albany. Read more
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