It seems so simple: You put on a mask to help fight the spread of the coronavirus when you’re going to possibly be around other people. You take it off when you’re back home.
But then your glasses fog up, so you pull the mask lower. Your voice is muffled, so you hold it away from your face as you talk. You’re with your friends, so you take the mask off. You’re just going for a quick trip, so you forgo it altogether.
Since the CDC told us to cover our faces in public, it’s been a huge change for many of us. We’re not perfect, but we’re trying our best.
“The general public is not used to wearing masks, and they’re not used to working through masks,” said Suzanne Willard, associate dean of global health and clinical professor at Rutgers School of Nursing. “We’re asking lay people to use a tool that health care professionals are trained to use. … We’re going to do what we can with what we have.”
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We asked Willard and other experts — doctors, scientists, professors — what they’ve seen people get wrong when it comes to masks, and tips for how to fix it. Here’s their advice, boiled down and in no particular order.
Masks are meant to catch the air you breathe, but they can’t do that when worn under the nose.
Wearing the mask over your nose will also help provide a better fit. And while masks are primarily about catching and slowing your own droplets, they may provide some protection against incoming droplets — better than not wearing one — and covering your nose will help there, too. If you’re not covering your nose, you’re directly breathing in any droplets in the unfiltered air.
DO IT RIGHT: Cover the whole bottom half of your face.
Perhaps the most common mistake, experts said, is people thinking it’s cool to leave the mask at home in some situations.
Masks are meant to limit the spread of the respiratory droplets that are the primary way the coronavirus is spread from person to person, so in cases when you’re not around anyone else, it’s true you can go without one and have very little risk. The problem is you have to really be sure no one is around.
The street might be empty, but then someone comes barreling out of their house, or around a corner, or out of their car, and suddenly they’re right in front of you.
DO IT RIGHT: We don’t need to obsess about these kinds of possibilities — if we just wear masks anytime we leave our homes, we’ll be literally and figuratively covered.
Masks can get hot and itchy and uncomfortable. When it seems safe and other people aren’t around, it’s such a relief to take a break, dangling the mask from one ear or having it pulled off to the side.
The thing is, you’re touching your face, which by now we’ve heard a million times we shouldn’t do. (We might have picked up the virus from touching a dirty object and then we could transfer it to our face, infecting ourselves.)
DO IT RIGHT: And as we said earlier, you never know when you might run into someone. Better to keep the mask on the whole time.
If you’re adjusting your mask, you might touch your face. That’s not ideal.
Of course, if you have to touch your mask to fix it and wear it correctly, you should. Wash your hands or use sanitizer before and after.
If you’re constantly messing with the mask because it doesn’t stay on properly — it keeps slipping off your nose, say, or popping over your chin — you might need to make some changes to the mask itself, such as sewing on a piece of adjustable metal that can sit on your nose. Make sure you have masks that fit you properly: Does the mask need to be a different size? Would a different style better fit your face? Are ear loops or ties better?
DO IT RIGHT: Try not to touch it at all.
Sometimes, only some people in a group are wearing masks.
The problem is, wearing a mask is primarily about helping protect others. You might not be worried about getting infected, but others are. Their mask helps protect you, but you’re not doing anything for them by going mask-free.
It feels a little backward: If you want to be protected, you need others to wear the masks. Exposure to the coronavirus is also about time — the longer you spend in the presence of someone who’s infected, the greater your changes of becoming sick yourself. That makes groups particularly risky.
And while we don’t yet know enough about the coronavirus to know what kind of immunity you might have after recovering from an infection, we do know mask wearing is most effective when as many people as possible do it. Wearing a mask, even if you don’t think you personally need it, can help normalize the behavior, making it less awkward and strange and turning it into a common, even polite thing to do.
DO IT RIGHT: Make sure everyone is covered. You don’t need the mask if you’re just around the people you live with, but in public it can help send the right signals to others.
Masks aren’t magic. They help reduce the chances of transmitting the coronavirus, but that can be more than offset if we use masks as a justification for going out more often or getting close to others.
It’s difficult, experts said, because we might not even realize we’re doing it — we feel protected when we wear masks and may forget about other things we should be doing to protect ourselves.
Remember, the most important way to protect yourself and others is still to limit exposure to other people.
DO IT RIGHT: Stay at home as much as possible; when you do go outside, maintain physical distance from others and practice good hand hygiene.
Whether you call it the stoop or the steps, that little area between your front door and sidewalk is perfect for a little bit of hanging out. And in a time like this, neighbors sitting on their front steps can see each other and talk while staying apart from each other — while soaking in some sunshine and breathing in some fresh air.
You may not need a mask for that. But it depends on your street. Because the sidewalk, see, is right there. Anyone walking down is going to be less than 6 feet away. And if they’re friendly and stop to say hi, how sure are you they’re going to stay 6 feet away? (If 6 feet is even the right distance!)
DO IT RIGHT: If you’re on a busy street, or you think people might pass by on the sidewalk within just a few feet of where you’re sitting on your stoop, it’s safer to wear a mask.
Remember how masks might, ideally, protect you to some degree by helping catch other people’s droplets as you breathe in? That means you might have those droplets — and virus — on the front of the mask.
Don’t worry. It’s only a problem if the virus then gets onto your face. And you can prevent that by washing your hands and then taking off the mask from the ear loops or ties.
DO IT RIGHT: Don’t touch the front, where any virus might be trapped. Set the mask aside in a safe place until it can be washed, and then wash your hands again.
Masks should be washed or disinfected between every use, because you don’t want to accidentally pick up any virus that got trapped on it from the last time you used it. Soap is effective against the virus — good old soap, just the regular stuff, whether a hand soap or laundry detergent or whatever — and you can wash masks with your regular laundry or by hand.
After a while, you might need to replace your mask if it becomes torn or just too beat up. If it stops fitting your face tightly and lets in air around the sides, the mask isn’t doing its job.
DO IT RIGHT: Wash masks before you use them again, and check them to make sure they’re still good to use.
Things are scary right now, and it can be especially concerning when other people’s behavior affects your own health. And there are a lot of people not following public health guidance on social distancing and masks.
And you don’t even need to confront someone about their mask usage (or lack thereof) to make a difference: Be a model by wearing masks properly yourself, helping to make it the norm.
Breathe. You don’t have to obsess over every little thing. (Even if we’ve just given you a list of many little things!)
These tips are meant to help you wear masks more effectively. But remember, the old rules still apply: Stay home as much as possible, stay away from others when you do go outside, and keep washing those hands and avoiding touching your face.
The best way to not have to stress about whether you’re wearing a mask properly? Stay home.
And be generous to yourself, too. Allow yourself to make mistakes here and there. Maybe you forgot a mask once, or you just had to take it off or adjust it. That’s fine. It happens. Masks aren’t perfect, anyway.
The goal is to reduce our coronavirus risk as much as possible. The more we wear masks properly, the more we shrink that risk.