7 Things You Should Never Do with Your Face Mask — And the 5 Things You Definitely Should

published Feb 1, 2022
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Masks, wallet, keys — check, check, check. Masks, it seems, have become such a regular part of our daily routine to the point where many of us don’t give them a second thought. We just slip them on right before, say, heading into the grocery store, and we take them off once we get back in our cars. We just do it automatically. But that, by no means, makes us experts in mask-wearing. In fact, people (ourselves included) make a variety of mistakes that actually make the whole mask-wearing thing a lot less effective.

Two-plus years into mask-wearing, we still have plenty of questions, so we turned to experts to give us a refresher course in wearing masks and to debunk some mask-cleaning myths. (Turns out, spraying disinfectant on a disposable mask is not a good idea!)

Here are the things we should (and shouldn’t!) do when it comes to face masks.

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1. Don’t touch the actual mask part.

You should never take your mask on and off your face by holding the actual mask part. Instead — and this is important — use the ear loops to put on and take off your mask to avoid contaminating the part of the mask that’s supposed to, you know, remain uncontaminated. Also, it’s recommended that you wash your hands before and after putting your mask on and taking it off. (More on this below.)

2. Don’t wear an ill-fitting mask.

Ideally, you’re wearing a mask that has been fit-tested, says New York University Langone cardiologist Gregory Katz. Otherwise, “There’s no guarantee that you’re getting the true usefulness of the mask,” he advises. If you aren’t able to get fit tested, look for a mask that’s comfortable, covers your nose and mouth, and fits below your chin.

3. Don’t only wear a cloth mask.

“Don’t choose a mask based on fashion,” says Case Management Specialist at U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Melissa Hawkins. Cloth masks have been shown to have less effective filtration. Are they better than nothing? Sure. But if you like the look of a cloth mask, wear it over an N95 mask but not on its own.

4. Don’t wear a bandana or neck gaiter as a mask.

A recent study tested how well masks were able to stop aerosol particles and found that bandanas and neck gaiters offer no more protection than not wearing a mask at all. Are they better than nothing? Nope!

5. Don’t wash or disinfect a disposable mask.

While a disposable mask is meant to be worn once, and then, you know, disposed of, many of us have been trying to stretch out the life and cost of a mask. Rumors have circulated that you can spray your mask with disinfectant or hydrogen peroxide, and it’ll be as good as new. This is not true. “If a disposable mask gets wet, that means it’s no longer as protective,” explains Katz. “You should not disinfect a mask with any household cleaners either.” And while we’re at it, don’t throw a disposable mask in the dryer, thinking heat will kill any germs! “It compromises the fit, which makes it less useful,” explains Katz. “If a mask gets wet — with saliva, blood, snot, or whatever — then it should be discarded.” Wear a disposable mask once and then get rid of it. Note: Reusable cloth masks should be washed as soon as they become dirty, or at least once a day.

6. Don’t fidget with your mask.

The CDC notes that if you have to touch or adjust your mask often, that means it doesn’t fit you properly, and you may need to find a different mask or make adjustments. (See our experts’ picks for best disposable masks below.) It’s definitely hard to resist the urge, but try not to pinch the nose or touch the mask too much as you are wearing it. Simply put, all that touching compromises its effectiveness.

7. Don’t hang your mask from your rearview mirror.

Resist the temptation to hang your mask on the rearview mirror of your car. AAA explains that dangling anything from your rearview mirror — including air fresheners, fuzzy dice, and yes, face masks — can be a safety hazard. It has the potential to partially block your field of vision while driving, putting yourself and others in harm’s way. Katz also points out that hanging it from a rearview mirror could potentially stretch out the elastic ear loops and compromise the fit. (See below for the best place to store your mask in between uses.)

So, what should we be doing with our masks instead? Our experts give us their best and safest tips:

1. Do wear a fitted N95 mask.

That same study that declared bandanas and neck gaiters useless also found that N95 masks were far and away the gold standard. Buy a trustworthy, highly rated mask from a reputable company. For kids, Hawkins recommends adjustable Dr. Puri masks. For adults, Katz suggests Halyard N95 masks. (They’re not the prettiest, but protection is the name of the game!)

2. Do wear your mask over your nose.

This may seem obvious, but Hawkins notes that this often happens when people have an ill-fitting mask or one that’s loose. Remember: Because COVID-19 is spread through particles in the air that you breathe, having your nose out makes them pretty useless. 

3. Do try the paper bag method.

In an ideal world, we’d all dispose of our disposable masks each and every time we wore them. But we know this isn’t necessarily financially feasible. If you need to re-wear a mask, go with the CDC’s “crisis capacity recommendation,” and store it in a breathable, empty paper bag between wears to minimize contamination. This way, you’ll avoid potential germs from landing on your mask. This storage solution can also apply to cloth masks — just don’t store masks together. Each mask should have its own paper bag.

4. Do wash your hands before and after touching a used mask.

You were responsible enough to wear a mask, so don’t undo that by taking it off and itching your nose or rubbing your eyes. Wash your hands immediately after removing your mask to cleanse them of any viral particles that may have found their way onto the outside of your mask. As a good practice, don’t forget to wash your hands before you put on your mask too.

5. Do grab a new mask if your current mask is wet — no matter what.

Whether it’s gotten wet from water, saliva, snot, or blood, throw it out, emphasizes Katz. “The issue with the number of re-wears is not so much that the mask gets compromised by use, but that it either gets misshapen and loses fit or that it gets wet,” Katz says. “When a mask gets wet, it just isn’t usable anymore.” While it’s preferred we all wear N95s, this tip applies to cloth masks as well. Be sure to clean any cloth masks throughly — again, the CDC recommends you use your washing machine or wash your mask by hand with laundry detergent or soap.

What do you think of these expert tips? Tell us in the comments below.