This article was updated December 7, 2020, to reflect new information from the CDC.
If you’re a health care professional, you’re probably pretty familiar with how to handle personal protective equipment such as masks and respirators. But if you’re like most of us, safely wearing and taking care of a face mask may not be second nature.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended everyone wear a face covering whenever they leave their home. It’s also important to wear a mask in their home if they live with someone who has symptoms of COVID-19. The rationale is simple: You may not know you have novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and might be spreading it. Wearing a mask also protects you, the wearer, from contracting the virus.
The safest approach to wearing a personal mask is to assume you are encountering people who are sick, and behave accordingly. Treat the side of the mask that you show the world as if it were carrying a virus – because it might be.
Don’t touch your mask
Much like you’re constantly hearing, “Don’t touch your face,” the same applies to your mask. As you go about your business wearing it, avoid touching it. If you do touch it, use hand sanitizer or wash your hands with soap and water. Remember, we’re assuming the mask is carrying germs – just like your hands are.
And even when you want to speak more clearly, don’t be tempted to grab your mask and pull it below your chin. Don’t push it up over your head to give yourself a break. If you do those things, you’re potentially contaminating your face and your hands.
Don and doff like a pro
Clinicians will tell you that how you put on and take off your personal protective equipment makes all the difference.
Get in the habit of only handling your face covering only by the ear loops or ties.
When you put it on – holding it by the ear loops – make sure it goes over your nose and under your chin. It should stay there snugly as long as you wear it.
When you remove it, grab it by the ear loops and pull the mask straight forward, away from your face.
On your face or in a bag
You’ve carefully removed your mask, holding it only by the ear loops. The next part is so important. Bring the loops together so the mask is folded in half with the side that was next to your mouth – the clean side – is on the inside.
Then carefully drop the mask in a paper sack or plastic baggy. That way, if you have another errand, you can take it out of the bag – by the ear loops and put it back on.
And don’t forget – before you handle the mask and after – use your sanitizer or soap and water.
Keep it clean
Just as you put on clean clothes every day, you should never use the same mask two days in a row.
And when you get home with it, if it’s not in its baggy, it should be in your washing machine – not on the car seat. Not on the kitchen table. It’s contaminated, remember?
Cloth masks can be cleaned with hot or warm water and dried on your dryer’s hottest setting.
When to wear your mask
Unless someone in your home is sick, you don’t need to wear masks at home.
If someone has symptoms of COVID-19, everyone living in the house should wear a mask and the sick person should sequester themselves in a room away from the rest of the household. In addition, the CDC recommends that you should wear a mask in your home if you or someone else living there has been exposed to COVID-19.
You should wear a mask whenever you leave your home, and in particular when you can’t guarantee you can keep six feet between you and others. But if you’re out taking a walk and you can keep distance from others – by all means, lose the mask. UV rays kill viruses, and fresh air is a great thing.