The COVID-19 public health emergency is behind us. That doesn’t mean COVID is gone, of course. But it’s a sure sign we’re learning to live with the virus that sent us sideways in 2020 and has claimed more than a million American lives since.
We’ve learned a lot about preventing COVID since those early days. We’ve long since laid to rest the question of mask effectiveness. When worn properly, masks do work. Instead, lower case counts and relaxed measures have a lot of us now asking: Should we still wear masks?
Get answers from your care provider
Yes, there are times we should still wear masks, according to Jamie Almasy, director of Infection Prevention and Control for OSF HealthCare.
Masks have been an effective tool for preventing the spread of COVID-19 and its variants, like the omicron variant. Masks also help protect against influenza and other viruses.
“If I’ve been exposed to any illness, if I’m high risk myself, or if there’s a lot of sick people in my area, there’s no question that I should still wear a mask,” Jamie said. “To some extent, masks are here to stay.”
Mask effectiveness depends on fit
Your mask should cover the bridge of your nose, the tops of your cheeks, the sides of your face and under your chin without significant gaps.
“You want the mask to stick to your face and stay snug over the nose and below the chin,” Jamie said. “It should also touch all four sides, not just top and bottom. If you can’t get the mask to meet the bridge of your nose and stay on your cheeks, try a different kind.”
There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all face mask, as faces vary so much in size and shape.
Types of masks
Masks are effective in preventing the spread of disease. The type of mask you use depends on your personal preference. Masks to consider:
- Cloth masks made from layers of tightly woven, breathable fabric
- Disposable surgical masks
- KN95 masks
There’s so much choice in breathable masks that meet CDC guidelines these days, it’s easy to find a style and type that works for you. Generally speaking, the best masks for COVID – and other diseases that are spread by respiratory droplets and particles in the air – are the ones that fit over your nose and mouth and have a nose wire.
How to put on a mask
Regardless of the type of mask you use, some guidance is universal. Handle your face covering only by the earloops or ties. Wash your hands with soap and water or use hand sanitizer before and after you handle your mask.
When you put it on – holding it by the earloops – make sure it covers your nose and mouth and fits under your chin. The edge of the mask should fit snugly against your face.
When you remove it, grab it by the earloops and pull the mask straight forward, away from your face.
If you’ve encountered a virus while wearing your mask, not touching the outside surface will keep you from getting the virus on your hands and exposing yourself to it.
How to put on an N95 mask is a different process because instead of earloops, it has two straps that go around your head and sit high and low. But an N95 respirator is intended to be worn by a medical professional whose fit has been tested by another trained medical professional.
Surgical masks and KN95 masks are more readily available to the public and are a great choice that require no training or fit testing. Like cloth or other disposable masks, a KN95 respirator should be handled by the earloop. Once snug on your face, you will need to push the nosepiece down to mold it around your nose, reducing the risk of droplets getting in or out of your mask.
Is a double face mask ever necessary?
If one mask is good, two is even better. Right?
Not necessarily, Jamie said. Face mask safety is more a matter of quality than quantity.
“The message is more about layering for cloth masks,” Jamie said. “The CDC recommendation for personal cloth masks is two or three layers. Multiple layers is really what you need to focus on.”
There’s no need to double mask with the high-quality disposable masks that are available.
How often should you change your mask?
Just as you put on clean clothes every day, you should never use the same cloth mask two days in a row.
Replace your disposable mask after each use.
It’s also important to know when it’s time to take a cloth mask out of your rotation for good. Cloth masks should be retired when they no longer fit snugly or show damage to the cloth or earloops.
“One thing we do in health care is hold the mask up to the light and look for pinholes or any area where you can see light coming through,” Jamie said. “If you can see light coming through, it’s time to get a new mask.”
Remember to wash cloth masks after each use and machine dry on the hottest setting.
It’s also important to know that wet masks aren’t effective.
“As soon as your mask gets wet or moist, take it off and put on a new mask. It’s a good idea to always have a clean one in your car, or in your bag or coat pocket, so you can change out when the first one gets wet,” Jamie said.
Why do I feel nauseous when wearing a mask?
If you are no longer used to regularly wearing a mask and find you don’t tolerate it well, don’t worry. You might be dizzy or queasy because you’re anxious about wearing a mouth covering. It takes time to adapt to face mask breathing.
Try wearing it for small periods of time around your home, gradually increasing the time you spend masked until it feels tolerable again. You can also try a few different types of CDC-approved masks, until you find one that’s more comfortable for you.
If you’re planning on exercising while wearing a mask, even if you’re very fit, you should dial back the intensity and workout length until your body gets more used to exertion while masked.
Last Updated: May 30, 2023