Although people are starting to be vaccinated, the coronavirus is raging throughout the U.S., with more than 21 million cases, 365,000 deaths and 132,000 people hospitalized as of Friday.
With that in mind, it’s still crucial to wear a face covering, said epidemiologist Rashid Chotani. Until the entire public is vaccinated, he said, wearing a mask can go a long way toward helping keep people safe.
“We will still lose Americans to this disease, but wearing a mask can decrease the virus circulation, which will decrease hospitalizations and mortality,” said Chotani.
But as straightforward as wearing a mask may seem, there are many ways we continue to misuse them.
A 2020 study conducted by mask company Signs.com homed in on these mishaps by surveying 1,000 mask owners on how often they wear masks and how they care for them. Some of the study’s findings were alarming, revealing that many mask wearers have shared masks with others and have waited days to weeks to wash them.
As startling as this sounds, these mask mistakes are easy to fix. To help you improve your mask hygiene, we asked Chotani and other public health experts for advice on how to rectify all the mask mistakes you may be making.
Mistake: You aren’t washing your hands before and after you take off your mask
Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends washing your hands before and after using a face mask, the Signs.com study revealed that many mask users neglect to do so.
Up to 35% of study participants, for example, reported not washing their hands before putting on a face mask, while another 43.7% admitted they have taken off their mask without washing their hands first.
In order to prevent transmission of the virus, Chotani advised washing your hands for a complete 20-30 seconds before putting on and removing your mask, as infections transferred to hands can easily be transferred to the nose, mouth and eye areas.
“Hand washing is the cornerstone of infection control practice,” he said. “Washing hands prior to putting a mask on avoids any contaminants to get on the mask. When removing a mask, and putting it in the laundry after one use, it is important to wash hands to assure that no contaminants or infections are transferred to the hands.”
Mistake: You aren’t cleaning your face after wearing a mask
This one’s more about preventing breakouts than slowing the spread of the virus. But if you’re looking to reduce mask-induced acne, Sedgwick senior medical adviser Teresa Bartlett says washing your face is a must. And 31.9% of Signs.com survey participants disclosed that they did not wash their face after wearing a mask.
“Many have reported that acne under the mask is a problem, so washing your face more frequently can help avoid acne breakouts,” Bartlett explained.
To cleanse your skin properly, the American Academy of Dermatology advises cleansing your face daily with a mild, fragrance-free cleanser, and moisturizing your skin afterward.
Mistake: You’re sharing a mask with others
This may come as a surprise, but almost 25% of mask wearers in the survey said they have shared a face mask without washing between uses. Yikes.
Physician and ENT surgeon Gan Eng Cern advises ditching this habit as soon as possible. Much like the toothbrushes, hairbrushes and underwear we use, face masks are hygienic items that should not be shared.
“Cloth face masks absorb your droplets and sweat, so if it’s worn by another person other than yourself, you’re basically spreading your fluids to other people,” he explained. “You’re promoting the very thing that medical professionals and public health experts are trying to encourage the public not to do, ultimately contributing to the spread of the coronavirus.”
COVID-19 aside, each person carries their own bacteria and viruses, and these pathogens can be transferred onto your mask, according to Rivka Abulafia-Lapid, head of the immunology cell vaccination laboratories at Hadassah Hebrew University Medical Center in Israel. That makes it wise not to share with anyone at all.
“Everyone has bacteria and viruses that are inside the mask while breathing, and once someone uses others’ masks, they will get the bacteria and viruses from them, including COVID-19,” she explained. “It is absolutely not recommended to use others’ masks.”
However, if you wash your mask before allowing someone else to use it, Bartlett and Chotani both said, it’s safe to share it with others.
“If there are multiple people living together, it is advisable to have individually marked masks to avoid any mistakes,” Chotani suggested.
Mistake: You’re reusing disposable masks
Disposable masks are definitely attractive to those on the go, as they can be worn and discarded easily after each use. But Signs.com’s survey revealed some startling information about disposable mask use: 44.2% of participants admitted to wearing their disposable mask multiple times before throwing it away.
Jagdish Khubchandani, professor of public health at New Mexico State University, warned against doing so, as disposable masks are designed, manufactured and certified for short-term use only.
“Disposable masks should be worn for a single day, and then tossed, as they quickly break down the ability to filter particles, carry microorganisms and become soiled,” he advised. “Even a couple of days of using disposable masks is already an overuse, as on the third day, disposable masks are no longer effective.”
Mistake: You’re washing your disposable mask
Study participants (roughly 40.8%) also admitted trying to wash disposable masks meant for single-use purposes.
As tempting as this may be, this defeats the purpose of wearing a mask at all, according to Bartlett. When you wash disposable masks, it makes it them less effective.
“Disposable masks are intended for single use,” she explained. “Once they get wet, or have moisture, their effectiveness to protect you is diminished. The fibers break down and will not be able to protect you as much.”
Mistake: You aren’t washing your reusable mask for days or even weeks
While the CDC recommends washing reusable masks after each use, Signs.com’s survey revealed that many reusable mask wearers were failing to do so.
On average, nine days was the longest people reported going between washes, according to the study, while 10.6% of study participants said they have gone longer than two weeks without washing their mask.
Similarly, a fall 2020 consumer survey conducted by textile tech company Livinguard revealed that 79% of survey participants admitted to not washing cloth face masks after each use, while another 8% admitted to not washing them at all.
“Washing will ensure that the mask remains hygienic and functional in preventing us from spreading our fluids,” Cern explained. “Two weeks of not washing reusable masks will diminish their functionality. Most likely, the mask has already accumulated large amounts of sweat, oil, and droplets which will result in a foul smell, making it hard for you to breathe.”
Mistake: You aren’t covering your nose and mouth with your mask
As you’ve probably noticed, this is a big one. While wearing a mask for long durations can make it harder to breathe, “half-mask wearing” should be avoided at all costs, according to Dr. Mark Fischer, who specializes in general practice and infectious disease.
“A lot of people will wear their masks pulled down, exposing either their nose, or their entire face,” he said. “This completely takes away the benefits of wearing a mask. It must be secure, covering your mouth and nose securely at all times for it to be effectively used to protect you, and others around you, from viral transmission.”
Furthermore, a recent study published in the journal Cell revealed that cells in the nose are more likely to be infected with the coronavirus than cells in lung and throat areas, making it even more important to ensure that your mask covers your nose and mouth.
Mistake: You aren’t storing your mask correctly
And there is another mask mishap that often goes unnoticed, warned immunologist Chris Xu.
“Where you store your mask matters,” he said. “Have a safe spot that’s far from other people in your home, and be deliberate with how you put a mask on ― wash your hands or sanitize, only touch the straps. The same goes for removing your mask.”
To store your dirty masks carefully, the CDC recommends placing wet and dirty masks in a plastic bag until they are ready to be cleaned. Keeping them stored in a bag prevents transmission from the hands to the eyes, nose and mouth areas.
To store clean masks, the CDC advises keeping them in a dry, breathable bag (paper and mesh fabric both work) until they are ready to be used.