The Safety.com Guide to Face Masks During COVID-19

It’s been more than eight months since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S., and as cases continue to mount all across the world, Americans at home are doing everything they can to protect themselves and their families. COVID-19 strikes without warning, sometimes without even symptoms, and it has been 2020’s silent killer of the elderly and the compromised. 

Social distancing and quarantines are helpful, but they can only do so much when confronted with such a sly airborne disease. This is where a face mask can serve as a literal lifesaver, but only if you use them appropriately. 

How face masks prevent COVID-19 infections

Image courtesy of the CDC.

As a respiratory illness, coronavirus spreads by the tiny droplets you produce when you do everyday actions such as talking, coughing, sneezing, singing or shouting. Coronavirus bacteria can then be transferred easily, as these droplets move in the air and ultimately land on your face or worse, are inhaled directly into your lungs. 

 “The coronavirus is a very tiny virus, measured in microns,” Andrew Roszak, Executive Director for the Institute for Childhood Preparedness, tells us. “As a reminder, wearing a mask is not a replacement for keeping 6 feet away from others, or from washing your hands frequently.”

Coronavirus does not necessarily show itself overnight. Many people carry the symptoms without even knowing that they are infected, and that misconception can be incredibly dangerous. Even if you do not show symptoms, that doesn’t mean that you are ill. A mask can protect you from all pathogens you are — and more importantly, are not — aware of.

Who should wear a mask?

Face masks are designed not to necessarily protect you from contracting the virus but to prevent you from spreading it to others. The CDC considers close contact if you come within six feet of another person.

These are times when you should wear a mask:

  • Public settings
  • In the company of non-household members
  • Caregivers
  • Retail workers
  • Service vendors

Any time that you expect to come into contact with someone that you do not live with, it’s always advisable to wear a mask. Self-quarantine is happening within homes, too. Those who live with seniors and those with medical issues will likely require greater safeguards than others.

There are also people who should not wear a mask. If you cannot remove your mask without assistance, the CDC advises that you not wear a mask and find an alternate solution to protect yourself. Face masks are also not recommended for children under the age of 2, as well as those experiencing the following issues. 

  • Trouble breathing
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Incapacitation 
  • Physical or mental health issues with which a mask interferes 

“It is important to keep in mind that not all masks are equally effective,” says Morgen Depenthal of Morgan Depenthal Design, who designed his XO Mask as a solution.  “One of the most important features of a good face mask is a tight seal around your nose and mouth to help contain aerosol particles.” 

Types of face masks

There are many different kinds of face masks that you can use but not all of them will be best to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

To find the best face masks you can use, we spoke with Dr. Leann Poston of Invigor Medical. As a licensed physician and practicing pediatrician, she is also the former Assistant Dean and Director of Admissions at Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine. 

Fabric and cloth masks

Fabric and cloth masks remain the best masks you can use. “Fabric masks are easy to make or buy. They can be washed and reused,” Dr. Poston explains. “Of the cloth masks, a double layer mask will filter out more pathogens than a single layer. Double layer cotton with a silk or chiffon inner layer can also feel comfortable on the face,” Dr. Poston recommends.

If you do not have a mask, items like bandannas, scarves and towels can work as alternatives. Just be sure that the material is thick and non-porous — if you hold the item up to light and see light getting through, that garment or item is not likely to protect from the transmission of coronavirus. 

Surgical masks and respirators 

Surgical masks and respirators are the recommended face masks for medical workers during coronavirus, because they are so effective. “Surgical masks are single-use masks that protect the wearer from splashes and large droplets containing pathogens and help contain the wearer’s secretions,” says Dr. Poston. “The N95 masks filter out 95% of viral particles, but they are expensive and in short supply. They should not be used for everyday activities, except in health care settings.”

Face shields

There is no missing a face shield, which offers a more obtrusive and transparent design. However, these shields are more designed to protect the eyes more than the mouth. At this time, there is not any conclusive research to show that face shields protect from coronavirus, so the CDC does not recommend them. 

If you do decide to wear a face shield, you should choose one that reaches below your chin and wraps around your face. Hooded shields typically provide better protection than the standard face shield. 

Alternatives to face masks

Clear face shields and masks have also proven invaluable to those who are hard of hearing and rely upon lipreading. Even if you do have access to a mask, you can still make your own to save a few bucks. With decades of experience in emergency preparedness, Andrew Roszak knows that a little creativity can go a long way. 

“Masks can be easily made at home from t-shirts and rubber bands,” he says. “To prevent the spread, it is a good idea to have a couple of layers of fabric. This can be accomplished by folding a t-shirt over itself a few times. The nice thing about using a t-shirt is that you can easily wash it when you are done.”

How to wear a COVID-19 face mask

Image courtesy of the CDC.

There’s a lot of controversy over how to correctly wear a mask. A brief outing in public shows individuals wearing them many ways, so there is the question of which way is the right way to wear a COVID face mask.

Wash your hands first. Before you apply your mask, remove the germs from your hands by washing thoroughly for at least 20 seconds. If you do not have access to soap and water, use hand sanitizer instead.

Handle by the strings. To keep your mask safe for use, handle it by the strings when putting it on or taking it off. 

Affix your mask securely. When you apply your mask, ensure that your nose and mouth are entirely covered. There should be no open gaps on the side, and the colored side of the mask should be face outwards and away from you.

Adjust for a comfortable fit. Make sure that the mask is secure around your face so it will not come off. You still want to ensure that you can breathe.

Store your mask safely. It’s important to preserve and protect your mask when not in use. You can store your mask in a clean plastic and resealable bag. 

Washing and reusing your face mask

Most masks are reusable for greater convenience and affordability. Reusable masks are also recommended by medical professionals, including Dr. Giuseppe Aragona who the General Practitioner and Family Doctor at Prescription Doctor

“I would recommend you wear a reusable cotton mask, as these have been proven to be just as effective as surgical masks at times,” says Dr. Aragona. “Make sure that disposable ones are there for those who need them.” It is fine to reuse your coronavirus mask but you must handle and wash your mask appropriately. These tips can help you safely wash and reuse your face mask.

Laundry machine

  • Fold the outside corners together.
  • Place into the washing machine. It is fine to wash your mask with the rest of your laundry, along with your normal detergent.
  • Use the highest heat setting for your water. Heat will help kill off any lingering bacteria so your mask is safe for reuse.

Washing by hand

  • Purchase a bleach with disinfectant. Not all bleach will have the strength you need to combat coronavirus, so you should use bleach instead.
  • Create a homemade bleach detergent. You can easily make your own by combining one gallon of room temperature water for every 5 tablespoons of household bleach.
  • Submerge the mask in the bleach mixture. Your face mask should soak in the solution for five minutes.
  • Rinse thoroughly. Once the mask has thoroughly soaked, you should rinse your mask using either room temperature or cool water.
  • Dry your mask. You can either use your dryer with the highest heat setting, or you can allow your mask to air dry. Direct sunlight is best.

Remember to handle your mask only by the strings or ties to reduce chances of contamination as much as possible. Also, refrain from touching your mouth, nose and eyes and keep up with your hand-washing.

The bottom line

While there are many masks available, not all of them will protect you from coronavirus. With surgical masks and respirators reserved for medical personnel, fabric and cloth masks remain the best face masks to prevent coronavirus. 
“In the end, each person who chooses to wear a face mask contributes to the overall effort to help stop the spread of COVID,“ says Dr Poston of Invigor Medical.


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Contributing Writer

Lena Borrelli

Lena Borrelli is a freelance journalist who has covered home security, safety, and other topics for Safety.com, TIME, Microsoft News, ADT, and Home Advisor.