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When To Wear—and When to Skip—Your Face Mask

Cover yourself at the right times and protect yourself and others from COVID-19. 

With some states mandating the use of face masks—and face masks preventing the spread of coronavirus droplets—you likely own a few and know how to wear them. But do you know when to wear them? We asked doctors on the frontlines when to wear—and when to skip—your face mask, and here's what they said.


When to Wear Your Face Mask

man with a beard chats on his phone and wears a face pollution mask to protect himself from coronavirus.

"Masks should be worn anytime you have concerns about spreading a disease like COVID-19 from yourself to other people," says Dr. Warren Michalski. "These trap droplets from your mouth and nose and keep the virus contained within you, assuming you're a carrier." Keep reading to see exactly when and where.


In Any Enclosed Area 

people with face masks back at work in office after lockdown, talking

According to Eliza Chin, MD, you should wear a mask when "you're in any room or enclosed area where other people, except for members of your own household, are present—and physical distancing is difficult."


When You're Grocery Shopping

woman wearing protective face mask holding shopping basket and choosing food can product

With narrow aisles and lines to check out, it's not always possible to remain six feet apart when food shopping. Wear your mask. Some stores won't let you in without one.


When You're on Public Transportation

Mature man wearing disposable medical face mask in car of the subway in New York during coronavirus outbreak

Since states are reopening now, there will be more people using public transportation. It's more important than ever to continue wearing your mask, as there will be more people that can infect you, or be infected by you. 


When You're in a Beauty Salon

Professional manicure master in Transparent Safety Face Shield using Electric Nail Polisher Tool for Glazing treatment manicure procedure

Hair and nail salons are slowly reopening as we move through the phases. Beauty salons usually require the client and owner to be up close and personal. As it's nearly impractical to remain at a safe social distance, it's important to wear a mask. 


When You're in a Common Area

businesswoman wearing face mask as a protection against viruses and talking on mobile phone while walking at airport terminal

You should wear a mask when "you're working in—or walking through—common areas like hallways, stairways, elevators, and parking lots," says Dr. Chin.

RELATED: 15 Mistakes You're Making With Face Masks


When You're at a Protest


"It's important to wear your mask if you are in large crowds, especially if you are partaking in a protest and are among people projecting their voices," says Dr. Bindiya Gandhi. "Remember, the virus is spread via respiratory droplets including talking, speaking, singing, coughing and sneezing."


For Pregnant Women in Labor

Pregnant patient in face mask in a hospital at doctor visit during coronavirus outbreak

"When in active labor and pushing, there are many respiratory droplets that get into the atmosphere," says Dr. Madeline Sutton. "Many hospitals are encouraging the wearing of masks in labor to decrease possible transmission of COVID-19."


Any Time Social Distancing Isn't Possible

Two people in office passing documents with keeping a distance

In any circumstance—at work, at a restaurant, even at a park—wear your face mask if other people cannot stay six feet away from you.


When to Skip Your Face Mask


A face mask isn't always needed. There are times when it just won't make a big enough difference. Read on to find out when and where.


When You're Home

family of four eating dinner

"You do not need a mask while with your immediate family in your home if you have been staying with your family the entire time during the shutdown and have no COVID exposure," says Dr. Dianah Lake.


When You're in the Car

mid adult driver fastening seatbelts while sitting in car

"There is just no reason for this," says Dr. Lili Barsky. "The only time someone should be wearing a mask while still in their car is at a drive-thru, or paying or picking up something curbside. Or in a ride share or taxi service."


When You're in an Open Space With No One Else Around

woman doing sport exercises on morning sunrise beach in sports wear, healthy lifestyle, listening to music on wireless earphones holding smartphone, smiling happy

"With either nobody around or people are spread out far, like in a park or field—take this opportunity to take in some fresh air in a relatively low risk space, as this is something our bodies have been somewhat starved of this year," says Dr. Giuseppe Aragona. "Fresh air can be proven to help with mental health."


When You're Exercising Indoors, Away From People

Man wiping his face with a towel beside a treadmill

"If you're on a machine in your apartment gym or on a bike, or surrounded by a small number of people who can keep their distance, it is acceptable to not wear a mask," says Dr. Barsky. "If someone is sick they should not be at the gym or exercising at all." "These activities require exertion, and face masks make it hard to breathe adequately," says Kemunto Mokaya, MD.


When You're Eating

Couple having lunch at rustic gourmet restaurant

"If you are at a restaurant, you may be able to take off your mask when you are at your table to eat," says Dr. Maggie Cadet. "If you get up to use the bathroom or circulate around the room, a mask has to be placed on."

"In fact, after you take off your mask beforehand, you should store it far away from the table if it is reusable or throw it out if it is disposable and clean your hands to avoid contamination of the food," adds Dr. Barsky.


When You're in the Water

Close up image of a beautiful female swimmer in a swimming pool getting ready to train.

"Masks are also not required for the pool," says Dr. Cadet. Wet masks are more permeable, and it's better and safer to remain a good distance away from people who you don't live with. Same goes with the beach, says the CDC—do not get them wet.

RELATED: 9 Side Effects of Wearing Face Masks


When a Disability Doesn't Permit You To

sad senior listening, old man hearing concept of deafness or hard of hearing

You can skip wearing a mask when "you have a medical, mental health, or developmental disability that prevents wearing a mask," says Dr. Chin, "or you're hard of hearing or communicating with someone hard of hearing who needs to see your face."


Overall: Follow the Rules of Your State

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announces updates on the spread of the Coronavirus during news conference in the Red Room at the state Capitol

Laws vary by state and are changing every day. In California, for example, masks have just been mandated. In Montana, there is no mandate. Check with your local leaders, and consider their advice the bare minimum.

As for yourself: 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 about Emilia
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