Some of you will undoubtedly know that I’m currently quarantining because I had contact with someone who later tested positive for COVID. Both of us were properly masked when we had contact so I’m confident I did what I could to prevent transmission (assuming they were contagious when we had contact) but I’m being tested in a couple days, out of an abundance of caution.
This experience got me thinking that it might be helpful to give y’all some of the how’s and why’s of mask wearing. This is important because COVID infection rates are at an all time high here in Michigan. We know that mask wearing isn’t a 100% guarantee that you won’t spread the SARS-CoV-2 virus to someone or catch it from someone else, but it’s a damn sight better than walking around bare faced in the middle of a pandemic. Especially one featuring a virus that’s spread primarily through respiratory droplets, some of which we now know are aerosolized and can be spread by someone who has no symptoms.
I liken proper mask usage to
Wearing a condom – They prevent a lot of, but not all, pregnancies
Brushing your teeth – You might still get cavities, but you won’t get as many and they won’t be as bad when you do
Wearing shoes – A random, sharp object might go through the sole of your shoe and into your foot, but it would go in farther if you were barefoot, plus it’s gonna stop a whole lot of small sharp things from getting to your foot at all
Wearing your seatbelt – You might still be seriously injured or killed while wearing one, but they greatly reduce the number of catastrophic injuries and save countless lives every year.
I think we can all agree that we’d like to say goodbye to masks sooner rather than later. Masks are going to be a part of our lives for a long time, and they’ll be with us even longer if people don’t wear their masks correctly. In that vein, let’s dive into some of the information you need to know to be the safest you can be.
What Not to Wear
Neck gaiters – A study out of Duke University has shown that not only do neck gaiters provide no protection for yourself (the secondary reason for wearing a mask), they also break up the respiratory droplets you exhale into smaller aerosolized droplets which hang in the air for a longer period of time, which makes wearing a neck gaiter worse than wearing no mask at all. Check out this article from CNBC or this article from Infection Control Today to learn more.
Bandanas – Some posit that the Duke study showed that bandanas were only slightly better than going bare faced. Others interpret the findings to indicate that bandanas are worse than not wearing a mask. This article from Beckers Hospital Review asserts they’re worse than being bare faced. Either way, you shouldn’t be wearing a bandana as a protective face covering.
Fleece balaclavas – These have been lumped in with neck gaiters and bandanas but unlike the other two, hardly anyone discusses them separately, unless they sell them or have some stake in the industry. Even then they’re usually touted as “can be used in a pinch… combined with social distancing.” Here’s a link to an article that specifically talks about balaclavas being slightly better than nothing, and another one stating they’re worse than being bare faced.
Masks with valves/vents (even N95s) – Did you know that those valves or vents are one-way. While they provide a barrier for the air the wearer is breathing in, they allow unfiltered air to exit the mask. This means if the wearer has been infected and is currently infectious whether or not they ever show symptoms, the air they exhale would be laden with virus. One of the biggest reasons we wear masks is to protect those around us when we’re out in public, and these masks offer zero in that regard. Read a little more about them from Vanderbilt University Medical Center here and Mayo Clinic here.
Best Masks for the General Public
Cloth masks – Infectious disease experts agree that cloth masks are the best alternative to hospital grade N95s, which we shouldn’t be wearing if we’re not currently working in a healthcare facility. Your cloth mask should be made from at least 2 layers of tightly woven cotton. This article from Johns Hopkins Medicine gives some pointers on what makes a good cloth mask.
Disposable/surgical mask – These are they type you can buy at any pharmacy. They are one of the few type recommended for the general public to wear. There’s some disagreement over whether these are more effective than cloth masks. Here’s a great article from Hartford HealthCare comparing the two.
KN95* – This is a type of N95 mask that is certified in China. Each country that certifies N95 masks has it’s own letter(s) designation and the K indicates China. When N95s (certified in US, as indicated by the single N) were in short supply earlier some hospitals and healthcare facilities got permission to use KN95s as a substitute because that’s what was available. Here’s an article about KN95 masks from the Oklahoma Health Department. *When infection rates were going down, and hospitals were able to get regular N95s, the general public began having limited access to these. Now that infection rates are rising rapidly, they should be reserved for healthcare providers.
How to Wear (and Remove) Your Face Mask
Cover your nose and mouth – If you had to take a biology class in high school, you should have learned that both your nose and your mouth are connected to tubes which are connected to your lungs. I saw it for myself when I took a dissection class last year. If you know someone who tends to wear their mask below their nose (or just want a chuckle), you might want to show them (or read for yourself) this article entitled, Studies Confirm Nose Holes Connect to Lungs
Make sure it goes over your chin – You want to prevent unfiltered air escaping below your mouth. If you’re feeling a breeze around your chin when you exhale, the mask is not covering your chin properly. Here’s an article from the Universe of California at San Diego Medical Center about proper mask fit. Be sure to watch the 2 minute video titled How to Properly Wear a Face Mask at the bottom of the page.
Sanitize your hands before putting it on – You don’t wan’t to potentially contaminate the mask as you’re putting it on.
Don’t touch the front of the mask while you’re wearing it -If you touch anything except the earloops, immediately wash or sanitize your hands to avoid potentially spreading the virus.
Do not remove your mask to sneeze or cough – This completely defeats the purpose of wearing a mask. Sneezing and coughing propel your respiratory droplets much farther than talking or simply breathing.
Wear your mask in public spaces even if no one else is around – Scientists have found that aerosolized respiratory droplets can linger in the air for 8 minutes before falling to the ground. If an infected person was in the area 5 minutes before you and was not properly masked and you walk in not properly masked you have a much bigger chance of contracting the virus than if you were wearing your mask properly. The reverse is true as well. You could infect someone else if you’re infectious but haven’t shown symptoms yet. I don’t know about you, but I’d feel much worse if I made someone sick than if I simply got sick from someone else. Anyway, read about the 8 minute viral hang time here.
If your mask gets wet, change it – Damp masks are less effective than dry ones. If you sneeze or cough into your mask and the inside of your mask gets damp, you should change masks. If your mask gets damp or wet for any reason, you should put on a new one. More about that here.
Remove it by the ear straps only – Once it’s on do not touch any part of your face mask, except the ear loops, even when you’re removing it. Remember the front of your mask has all the germs and all the major ports of entry (mouth, nose, eyes) for the virus are located in the immediate vicinity.
Sanitize your hands after – Better safe than sorry. See what the San Francisco Department of Public Health says about putting on removing a face mask here
Do not reuse single use masks and only use cloth masks for 1 daybefore washing them – It’s just not hygienic. Bonus: If you’re prone to it, this will cut down on maskne, aka the pimples under your mask.
I Hope this helps you or someone you know.
If you learned something, or if I overlooked something and you want to let me know, drop a comment below.