Mistakes That Make Your Face Mask Less Effective


New normal after coronavirus pandemic woman with trendy mask.

Mistake 1: Skipping Soap and Water (or Hand Sanitizer)

Before putting on your mask, the CDC recommends washing your hands, and, if you happen to touch the mask while you’re out, you should wash up again. If you’re dining out, you’ll have to remove your mask to eat, so don’t forget to bring along hand sanitizer.

Once you’re home, untie the strings or remove the ear loops from your ears, fold the outside corners of the face covering together and place the item in the laundry, per the CDC. And wash your hands immediately.

If you wear gloves — and, really, they’re not necessary if you’re running to the ATM or grocery shopping, per the CDC — remove them first, wash your hands and then remove your mask and wash your hands again.

Mistake 2: Not Washing Your Cloth Mask

“Would you wear the same pair of underwear over and over again?” Grabowski asks. (Eww, no!) The same is true of cloth masks, she says. Ideally, masks (and underwear) should be washed after every use

Alternatively, you can stretch out your laundering cycles with this hack: Buy seven masks, one for each day of the week, and hang them in a warm place after use, Dr. Milton suggests. By day eight, the first mask in the rotation will be ready to use again. SARS-CoV-2 only lives on surfaces for a matter of hours to days, according to an April 2020 report in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Another reason to wash your mask is to ward off breakouts, according the Mayo Clinic. By giving your mask a good cleaning after wearing it, you’ll remove the skin cells and oil that can cling to the mask and potentially cause skin irritations and acne. Opt for a fragrance-free detergent when you wash your mask, per the Cleveland Clinic.

Mistake 3: Reusing a Disposable Mask

You can buy stacks of non-medical grade face masks online for everyday use. They’re lightweight and disposable, but are they safe to reuse?

Experts say it’s probably not a great idea. The filtering layers can degrade. The ear loops can stretch out. They get soiled.

“If they’re single use and disposable, they’re disposable after a single use,” Grabowski says. “What we don’t want is for masks to become a risk for someone.”

Mistake 4: Assuming Your Scarf or Neck Warmer Is Enough Protection

Yes, scarves and neck gaiters can cover your mouth and nose, but that doesn’t mean they offer the same protection as a mask. In fact, there’s some evidence that they might do the opposite.

In an August 2020 study published in Science Advances, researchers took a video as a person spoke in the direction of a box rigged with a laser beam and camera while wearing a face covering, then counted the number of droplets they produced. Out of 14 types of face coverings, bandanas and neck gaiters allowed the most droplets to escape, while professionally fitted N95 masks, surgical masks and cotton cloth face masks were the most successful at stopping droplets.

Gaiters in particular led to large droplets dispersing into smaller ones. Because these smaller droplets stay aloft longer, “the use of such a mask might be counterproductive,” according to the study.

Of course, this is only one small study, and more research needs to be done before we can draw a definite conclusion. But for now, opting for a cloth or surgical mask instead of these types of face coverings seems best.

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