A Comprehensive Guide to Face Masks

Helpful tips and tricks for making mask wearing a little easier
man putting on his covid mask after washing his hands

Months ago, many of us didn’t know how to take the news of having to wear masks out in public. A lot of us thought it was going to be a temporary thing. But here we are — masks are now required for essential services and as we enter restaurants and retail spaces. They’re here to stay for the time being and given the science, it’s totally understandable why.

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Why you should wear a mask

We know that the coronavirus is commonly spread between people who are in close contact with each other (less than six feet away from each other). We also know that COVID-19 spreads through respiratory droplets or small particles that are expelled when an infected person coughs, sneezes, sings, talks or breathes. Masks are important because they provide protection not only for ourselves but also for those around us. 

According to infectious disease specialist Kristin Englund, MD, Face masks act as barriers for respiratory droplets. “Whether you’re coughing and the droplets catch in the inside of your own mask, or if you’re near to someone else coughing and their droplets hit the outside of your mask – it protects both people,” says Dr. Englund. 

How to wear a face mask

While there are numerous styles and types of faces mask, the fit is instrumental in keeping you safe. When wearing a mask, keep these CDC guidelines in mind.

  • Your face mask needs to be snug, yet comfortable against the sides of your face. 
  • Your mask should be secured with ties or ear loops. 
  • Your mask should be constructed with multiple layers of material. 
  • It must allow you to breathe without restriction. 
  • Your mask should have the ability to withstand machine washing and drying and not get damaged or change shape.

Always wash your hands before putting on your mask. When you do put it on, you’ll want to put it over your nose and mouth and make sure that it is secure under your chin. Adjust the straps or ear loops as needed to ensure that your masks fits well.

How to remove your face mask

When it’s time to take your mask off at home, instead of grabbing the fabric and pulling it off, you’ll want to handle it by the ear loops or strings if it ties. You can then fold it by the outside corners and throw it in a laundry basket or the washing machine. Then, wash your hands thoroughly to prevent spreading germs. 

Should you need to remove your mask for a short period of time, Aaron Hamilton, MD, recommends this method.

Fold your mask so its outer surface goes inward and against itself. This will prevent the inner surface from coming in contact with the outer surface during storage. And remember to wash your hands before and after you put your mask back on. 

Ways to clean a mask

It’s recommended to wash your masks after every use. According to family medicine physician Neha Vyas, MD, not washing them could lead to sore throats or other illnesses. 

“Sore throats can be caused by viruses, bacteria or environmental irritants. They could also be caused by vocal strain (using your voice too much), dry air, or a condition called gastroesophageal reflux, or GERD,” explains Dr. Vyas. She adds that anyone can get sore throats, but people with weakened immune systems, allergy sufferers and those who use their voices often may be especially prone to them.

Here are some methods for cleaning your mask.

Cleaning your face masks in a washing machine

You can wash your masks with the rest of your laundry. Use regular laundry detergent and the warmest water setting for the cloth used to make the masks. If you have sensitive skin, use a mild detergent.

Cleaning your face masks by hand

This requires a few extra steps:

  1. Before you start, make sure the bleach you plan to use was made for disinfection. Not all bleaches are suitable for cleaning.
  2. You’ll also want to clean your masks in a well-ventilated area.
  3. Start the process by making a bleach solution. Use a bleach that contains 5.25%–8.25% sodium hypochlorite and mix it with room temperature water. Don’t use bleach that is outside of the range mentioned or bleach that is not specified. Also, avoid using bleach that is past the expiration date and never mix household bleach with ammonia or any other cleanser.
  4. Mix either: 5 tablespoons (1/3rd cup) of 5.25%–8.25% bleach in per gallon of room temperature water or 4 teaspoons of 5.25%–8.25% bleach in per quart of room temperature water.
  5. Allow your masks to soak in the bleach solution for 5 minutes.
  6. When finished, pour the solution down the drain and rinse your masks completely with cool or room temperature water.
  7. Dry your masks after completing the wash process.

Ways to dry your face masks

By dryer — When you throw your masks in the dryer, use the highest heat setting and leave them in until they are completely dry.

Air drying — Lay your masks flat on a towel or drying rack and allow them to completely dry. If possible, place the masks in direct sunlight.

The best types of masks

A recent study revealed that medical-grade N95 masks that are used by many front-line health care workers, were the best masks for blocking out the spread of infected droplets. However, these masks tend to only be available in clinical settings. 

The great news for us? This same study revealed that the cotton masks that most of us use work quite well when it comes to blocking the spread of droplets. 

If you’re wondering what else works well, the CDC recommends the following types of masks:

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  • Non-medical disposable masks.
  • Masks that fit properly with no gaps around the nose, chin and sides of the face. 
  • Masks made from breathable fabric. 
  • Masks made with tightly woven fabric (i.e., fabrics that do not let light pass through when held up to a light source).
  • Masks with two or three layers.
  • Masks with inner filter pockets.

In cases where you might be interacting with people who are deaf or hard of hearing, people who are learning to read or people who need to see the shape of your mouth to determine appropriate vowel sounds, it is OK to wear a clear mask or mask with a clear panel. 

When wearing these types of masks, make sure:

  • You can breathe easily.
  • Excess moisture does not collect inside of the mask.
  • You take off the mask before sleeping since the plastic part could form a seal around your mouth and nose and make it hard to breathe.

Masks types and fabrics to avoid

The CDC does not recommend the following:

  • Masks made with loosely woven fabrics, such as loose knit fabrics.
  • Masks that are difficult to breathe through (like plastic or leather).
  • Single-layer masks.
  • Masks that do not fit properly (large gaps, too loose or too tight).
  • Masks with exhalation valves or vents.
  • Surgical masks and respirators that are meant for healthcare workers (mainly to prevent supply shortages). 

While many have embraced face shields and goggles, the CDC does not recommend using them as substitutes for a mask. Instead, both can be worn in addition to a mask to minimize one’s risk of infection. 

Who should wear a mask?

The CDC recommends that those 2 years of age and older should wear a mask.

Masks should not be worn by:

  • Children younger than 2 years old.
  • Anyone who has trouble breathing.
  • Anyone who is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.

When should you wear a mask?

If you’re still on the fence about when you should mask up, here are some helpful hints. 

Wear a mask:

  • In public settings.
  • When you are around people who do not live with you (including at home, in a car or in places that don’t allow proper physical distancing).
  • When caring for someone who is sick with COVID-19 (whether at home or in a non-healthcare setting).
  • If you are sick with COVID-19 or think you may have COVID-19. (Wear a mask when you need to be around other people or animals, even in your own home.)

What can you do if the thought of wearing a mask makes you panic?

Believe it or not, mask anxiety is quite common for people who have anxiety disorders or a history of claustrophobia. It is possible to work through mask anxiety. It might take some help from a mental health professional and a mindset change to do so. 

Psychiatrist Brian Barnett, MD, explains. 

“Mask anxiety, like most forms of anxiety, can be overcome either through self-directed interventions or by seeking professional help through cognitive behavioral therapy or anti-anxiety medications.”

To desensitize yourself to the sensation of the mask on your face, Dr. Barnett suggests wearing one at home so when you have to put a mask on in public, it’s no big deal after a while. He also recommends thinking about the fact that health professionals have been wearing masks regularly for more than a century without any adverse health effects. 

Another thing you can do is change your mindset. Instead of thinking that everything is out of your hands, Dr. Barnett says that wearing a mask, even if it makes you anxious, is one of the few ways that you can maintain control over a very unsettling situation.

How to handle common mask problems

Struggling with mask acne, foggy glasses or just being uncomfortable while wearing a mask? Here are some helpful ways to make each scenario better. 

Ways to fight the fog

One thing that you can do to stop your glasses from fogging up? Make sure your mask fits well over your nose.

 “You want to make sure your mask fits securely over the nose. With glasses, a mask with a nose bridge will keep warm air from exiting up to your glasses as opposed to other face coverings,” says Dr. Hamilton.

If your mask is pretty wide, you can even pull it up higher on your nose and use your glasses to seal it and shape it to your face. Put your glasses on top of the material that’s over your nose and make sure they don’t slide off. A secure fit will keep the warm air from escaping through the top of the mask.

You can even wash your lenses with soapy water and shake off the excess liquid. Just let them air dry or gently wipe them off with a soft cloth before wearing your glasses again. The soap tends to leave behind a thin film that acts as a fog barrier. Just check with your optician before trying this so you don’t ruin any special coatings on your lenses. 

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How to battle the bumps

If you’ve been breaking out like crazy since you’ve had to wear a mask, dermatologist, Amy Kassouf, MD, recommends the following.

Lather up – A good foaming cleanser will help keep your skin clean and calm. If your skin is acne-prone, use something with salicylic acid.

Get a little flaky- Washing your face with a dandruff shampoo that has ketoconazole or selenium sulfide in it once in a while can also be calming for the skin and help remove excess yeast buildup – especially around the nose and mouth. 

Treat it right – Many people use products that contain benzoyl peroxide on their maskne. If you go this route, just be aware that benzoyl peroxide may bleach or stain the fabric of your mask.

Keep your masks clean – Changing your mask regularly can reduce irritation, especially after sweating or exercising. After each use, Dr. Kassouf recommends washing your masks with a fragrance-free detergent, rinsing them twice and putting them in the dryer.

How to stay cool in a mask

If you work in a mask or plan to work out in one, here are some tips to help you stay cool.

  1. Opt for breathable fabrics:  Tightly woven cotton fabric masks are a good choice since they’re breathable and soft. If you’re working directly in the sun, go for lighter-colored masks, as darker colored ones absorb more heat.
  2. Keep extra masks with you: When your mask gets sweaty, you can change into a clean, dry one. Moisture can decrease a mask’s effectiveness and make it even more uncomfortable.
  3. Stay hydrated: When you wear a mask, you’re more likely to skip water breaks throughout the day. But keep in mind that when you’re a little overheated and sweating, you need to drink more water.
  4. Take breaks: If you need a little room to breathe, go outside or away from other people and remove your mask for a few minutes. Be sure to remove it by the ear loops. And once you put it back on, wash your hands.

How to get your child to wear a mask

This can be a scary time for young children. To get them onboard with staying safe, pediatric psychologist, Emily Mudd, PhD, shares some helpful advice for putting your little one at ease when it comes to masks.

“To improve the success of your child wearing a mask in public, it helps to desensitize them at home. Engage your child in the process — give them a mask that they can decorate, which will increase the chance they will wear it. Purchase a neutral-colored mask, and let your child decorate it however they wish — with drawing, glitter, stickers, or anything they like. You can even sew the mask together as a team, or make a mask that you don’t have to sew. You can make masks out of T-shirts, bandanas, or other materials that you already have at home if your child doesn’t want to wear a traditional mask. Make it fun!”

How to communicate clearly in a mask

Sarah Sydlowski, AuD, PhD, MBA, and audiology director of Cleveland Clinic’s Hearing Implant Program, believes that we can reduce many mask-related communication barriers by being aware of how we talk and adjusting accordingly.

“Honestly, a huge part of it is just recognizing there is a challenge that’s happening, it’s real, it’s affecting all of us and that we all need to be a little more cognizant of just slowing down and speaking clearly, especially when extra distance is involved.”

Here are a few other suggestions from Dr. Sydlowski.

Don’t get loud – Louder doesn’t mean better when you’re wearing a mask. However, you do want to raise the volume of your voice just a little bit to get past the barrier. Also, speak slowly and clearly, and enunciate the beginnings and ends of words.

Try wearing a clear mask – “If you know you’re going to be talking with people who do have a form of hearing loss, consider getting a mask that has a transparent window. You can find masks with clear panels that allow people to see your face and read your lips to supplement their hearing,” says Dr. Sydlowski.

Let ’em know you’re all ears – Dr. Sydlowski says when you’re communicating with someone who has difficulty hearing, look in their direction and don’t look away, “We’ve lost a lot of visual information with masks because we can’t see each other’s lips. Looking at someone while you’re talking lets them know that you really have their attention — which is extra important.”

Have your hearing checked – Struggling to hear people or other sounds outside of the mask is a good indicator that you should have your hearing checked. “Some studies have shown that when hearing loss isn’t treated appropriately, there may be a relationship to cognitive decline. Doing something about your hearing early is such an easy way to stay connected and stay sharp so you can keep doing what you love,” says Dr. Sydlowski.

And despite all of the challenges, not wearing a mask is never an option

As mentioned before, masks are instrumental in slowing the spread of COVID-19. By not wearing one, you’re not only putting yourself at risk, but you’re also risking the health of those around you. So please wear a mask, wash your hands and maintaining physical distancing as much as possible. 

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