You’ve heard it before, and we’ll say it again: Face masks are a critical defense against the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. If you don’t have COVID-19, wearing a mask can decrease the chance of becoming infected by preventing viral particles from entering your mouth and nose. If you have COVID-19, whether or not you’re showing COVID-19 symptoms, a face mask will act as a barrier to help prevent the virus from spreading to other people.

“Unless you’re tested every single day, you won’t know if you do not have the virus or if you’re an asymptomatic carrier,” said Mary Beth Graham, MD, infectious disease specialist. “That’s why wearing the mask is important.”

Masking up became even more serious when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated their guidance to state that COVID-19 can be spread through airborne transmission. This means small droplets and particles infected with the virus can stay in the air over long distances (greater than six feet, the standard distance for social distancing) and for long times (hours instead of minutes).

“Most respiratory viruses typically remain infectious only if they’re in large droplets that fall to the ground within six feet. However, this particular virus can remain infectious in smaller droplets that can remain suspended in air and travel more than 6 feet. When someone is singing or yelling, particles can be projected out even further,” Dr. Graham said.

However, face masks lose their effectiveness when they aren’t worn properly. These are the CDC-recommended mask guidelines you should be following.

The Correct Way to Wear a Face Mask

  1. Clean your hands. Before putting on your face mask, wash your hands or clean them with sanitizer.
  2. Grab the mask by the ear strings. The cloth part of your mask is the part that would come in direct contact with the virus particles, so you should handle your mask by the ear strings. This also applies when taking off your mask.
  3. Cover your mouth, nose and chin with the mask. Only covering your mouth with a face mask does not completely protect you from spreading or becoming infected with COVID-19, because droplets infected with the virus can settle in your mouth and nose. “Most droplets come out of your mouth when speaking, but droplets can come out of your nose, too while breathing. That’s why people should cover their nose and their mouth,” Dr. Graham said.
  4. Check for gaps. A properly sized face mask will have minimal gaps under the chin and at the sides. Noticeable gaps between your skin and the mask can allow infected droplets to slip in and out.
  5. When removing your face mask, repeat steps 1 and 2. You wear your mask to protect yourself from harmful germs. Not taking proper precaution when removing your face mask could actually undo all that work that your mask did for you.
  6. Fold the outside corners together. This keeps any infected particles on the outside of your mask from spreading throughout your home, car or wherever you take off your mask.

How to Wash and Store Your Mask

Because the COVID-19 virus can stay on your mask after coming in contact with it, properly storing your mask is another important but often overlooked aspect of keeping you and the people you live with safe. Dr. Graham and her fellow health care workers have specific guidelines for storing their masks, just one of the ways they keep our patients safe. “If we’re going to carry around masks, we have a paper bag that we put them in to make sure we and our patients don’t touch the outer part that could have been exposed to COVID-19,” Dr. Graham said.

The general public can follow this practice as well. If you’re taking off a mask on the go, fold the outside corners together. Then store it in a paper or plastic bag — not directly on a table or in a purse or pocket — until you’re ready to put it back on.

If you’re taking off your mask at home after being out and about, another safe option is putting it right in your washing machine. Cloth face masks should be cleaned on a routine basis, and the CDC says washing face masks with your regular laundry loads is a perfectly acceptable way to do so. Just use your regular laundry detergent and the warmest water setting that’s appropriate for the material your mask is made out of.

For those who prefer washing their masks by hand, the CDC recommends soaking the masks in a bleach solution.

To dry your face mask, put it in the dryer on the highest heat setting, or lay it flat to air dry. If possible, put the mask in direct sunlight.

It’s a good idea to have a few face masks on hand, so you still have one to wear while the dirty ones are being cleaned.

More information on when and how to wear face masks is available from the CDC and the World Health Organization

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