Whether you are at work, school, gym or any public place, wearing a face mask is essential for protection against airborne bacterial and viral infections. While having a face mask on in crowded environments such as cinema halls, supermarkets, and public transport is a good preventive practice in general, it becomes especially important during the outbreaks seasons of air transmitted diseases, especially when an effective vaccine has not been developed yet. However, incorrect utilization of the face mask may increase the chances of being exposed to viruses or even render them useless. In this article, we are going to look at some of the most critical DOs and DON’Ts of wearing face masks.
Wash your hand before wearing the face mask
It is an established fact that many bacteria and viruses survive for hours on various objects and hence can be picked from dirty surfaces by touch. This is why it is essential to wash your hands thoroughly before putting on the face mask as you run the risk of delivering the pathogens directly into your mouth by contaminating the mask.
Properly orient the mask
You will not get an adequate level of protection if you wear the face mask incorrectly, such as upside-down or inside out.
- Upside-down: while some face masks and respirators may be perfectly symmetrical in which case this will not be an issue, most masks are not. Wearing the mask upside down will leave gaps both around the nose on top and around the mouth on the bottom. The easiest way to properly orient the mask is to locate the side with the soft metal strip that always goes on top and is shaped around the nose
- Inside out: while most N95 and KN95 respirators cannot be worn inside out due to their shape, the surgical masks can be more confusing. The rule of thumb with medical masks is to make sure that the colored side faces outwards.
Properly fit the mask
Face masks and respirators protect you against airborne bacterial and viral infections only if the air you are breathing passes through the face mask rather than its surroundings. This is why it is crucial that the mask is sitting tightly around your nose and mouth. There are several important considerations in this regard:
- Place the mask over your face in a way that it covers your nose, mouth, and chin. Never leave your nose out!
- Pinch the metal strip on the top of the face mask so that it molds to the shape of your nose and sits tightly, leaving no gap between the mask and your face.
- Adjust the mask to your face so no gaps are left on the sides.
Be sure to take all these steps as soon as you wear the mask since you shouldn’t be touching it afterward.
Correctly remove and discard the mask
Always remove the mask from behind the ears or back of the head by pulling on the elastic earpieces, without touching the mask itself. Once removed, keep it away from your face and the body and any other surfaces around you as it may contain bacterial and viral pathogens. Also, don’t let it lay around the house as it may contaminate the surroundings or touched by other people; discard immediately (into a bin with a lid, if possible). Wash your hands thoroughly after discarding the face mask since you touched a potentially contaminated object.
Do not wear damaged face masks
Do not use ripped or otherwise damaged face masks with holes or tears on them as they offer little protection against airborne pathogens. Most of the air and droplets contained within it will pass through the path of the lowest resistance (a.k.a. the hole), instead of the layers of fabric and filters of the mask. Another common type of damage seen in face masks are the loosened/deformed elastic earpieces. Not only will it cause the mask to sit loose on the face but, it will also prompt the person to frequently touch the mask in order to fit it properly which is highly problematic, as explained further.
Do not touch the front of the mask
This is by far the most common and understandable mistake made while wearing a face mask. Many times people touch their masks due to discomfort resulting from itching caused by sweating (since the sweat does not evaporate under the mask). Other times they touch it to adjust the mask or even unconsciously, without realizing it. Whatever the reasons might be, touching the face mask is not recommended as it may transfer the pathogens. Wash your hands and dry them thoroughly if you do touch the front of the mask.
Do not place the mask under your chin
Another common risky behavior many people engage in is lowering the face mask and wearing it under their chin while speaking to someone or simple because they are uncomfortable (“it’s hard to breathe with a mask on” is a frequent complaint). This is highly problematic due to several reasons:
- Exposing your nose and mouth in this way, even temporarily, put you and people around you at risk of contracting a viral or bacterial infection.
- This action places the inner surface of the face mask in direct contact with your chin that you might have touched and contaminated with your hands beforehand.
- It enables you to touch the front of your face mask as there is no other way of placing it under your chin.
Do not reuse the masks
As a general rule of thumb, CDC and other prominent health organizations advice against washing and reuse of face masks (with the exception of homemade cloth masks). Washing, cleaning or any other form of sanitization attempted by non-professionals run the risks of being ineffective in removing the pathogens, damaging and destroying the protective properties of the mask or even spreading the pathogens and contaminating the environment. Surgical masks can never be cleaned and reused safely and need to be replaced every 4-5 hours. On the other hand, while N95 and KN95 respirators can be potentially sanitized by vaporized hydrogen peroxide, ultraviolet light or by heating them at 70 oC for 30 minutes and reused up to 3 times according to tests conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), it is still better to discard the used mask and wear a new one to be on the safe side.