The Ultimate Guide to Face Masks
At the start of this year, many of us had aspirational fashion accessories on our wish list, like a great pair of boots or a purse we’d been eyeing in hopes of a markdown. Then, in a dramatic pandemic-driven plot twist, the one item we never imagined we might need suddenly became the hot piece we dare not leave the house without: the dreaded face mask. Available in a plethora of styles, patterns, fits, fabrics and finishings, a face mask is the ultimate accessory necessity, yielding benefits for both personal wellbeing and public health. Perhaps, if we’re willing to look on the bright side, masks also offer an opportunity for a little extra self-expression where we once wore our lipstick. But they’re only effective if we know how to select them, how to properly wear and manage them, and how to keep them clean and maintain them.
How Do Face Masks Actually Work?
The idea behind the mask is to contain germs at the source and provide a barrier of protection for those who are not sick. This does not provide absolute prevention, but still translates to enormous risk reduction. Health experts say there is clear evidence that wearing face masks can help minimize the spread of coronavirus. A series of laboratory studies found that when a person speaks a simple phrase or coughs, hundreds of respiratory droplets are generated and expelled through the mouth and nose, but almost all of them are blocked when the lower half of the face is covered by adequate fabric. This covering also prevents larger expelled droplets from evaporating into smaller droplets that can travel even farther.
Both pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic transmission is possible, and even common. In other words, people who are sick and don’t yet know it or who carry the virus without experiencing any symptoms themselves can still pass it on to others. Wearing a mask helps ensure that carriers don’t pass the virus on to people around them, and even when they do expel respiratory droplets, neighbors wearing a mask are less likely to come into contact with them.
Additional studies have noted that mask mandates directly led to a slowdown in the daily COVID-19 growth rate. So, as much as we don’t relish having to wear them, it’s clear that face masks are indeed effective.
How to Choose a Face Mask
A good mask contains a double layer of washable and breathable fabric. For the general public, the most important thing to consider when choosing a mask is whether you can wear it comfortably and consistently for as long as you’ll need to. Surgical masks generally offer better protection than cloth masks and are lightweight and comfortable to wear. Select a mask that fits securely over your nose and around your chin without leaving large gaps. If it’s too tight, if it chafes or leaves marks or bruises, look for one with a slightly looser fit that won’t irritate you or tempt you to touch or adjust it constantly.
Essentially, almost any mask that covers the nose and mouth is beneficial to the wearer and to the public. It’s crucial to note, however, that this does not apply to N95 masks with one-way valves, commonly worn at construction sites to avoid inhaling dust. Valved masks are not a good choice for disease prevention because the valve only works in one direction, closing when the wearer breathes in but allowing unfiltered air and droplets to easily escape when the wearer exhales.
How to Properly Wear and Remove a Face Mask
Many masks, like surgical masks, contain a malleable metal piece at the upper seam that can be molded across the bridge of your nose for a snug fit. To wear a mask with glasses and avoid fogging them up, opt for a mask with an adjustable metal piece or bendable border of some kind to prevent your exhalations from escaping out the top. Most cloth masks don’t have a metal nosepiece, but can still fit tightly over the nose to contain any respiratory droplets you might emit by talking, sneezing or coughing.
To put on your surgical or cloth mask, start by placing the mask over your nose with one hand. With the other hand, secure the loops over each ear. Shape it to fit your face and ensure that the mask fully covers your chin. The mask also serves as an excellent inhibitor to touching your own face, which can transfer germs from your hands into your eyes, mouth or nasal passages.
When removing your mask, keep in mind that the front portion of the mask is the dirtiest part, as it has been shielding your face from everything around you. Therefore, avoid directly touching your mask when you take it off (and if you do touch it, wash your hands thoroughly and/or use hand sanitizer immediately afterwards). Using two hands, grasp the loops around both of your ears, and pull the mask forward to carefully remove it. If it’s disposable, drop it immediately in a trash can. You may have noticed medical professionals disposing of their masks in this fashion.
An N95 respirator attaches by looping over the head rather than the ears and is different from the one-way valved N95 masks. To put this type of mask on, hold it up against your nose and mouth. Pull one elastic band over to the back of your head and across the top of your ears, and then pull the lower band over your head to rest at the nape of your neck. Adjust the mask to remove any spaces at the top and to ensure it fits tightly across your face.
To safely remove an N95 mask, use one hand to grasp the top of the mask at the bridge of the nose. Hold the mask in place against your face while you use the other hand to pull the elastic bands, one at a time, over your head. Then carefully clean it or dispose of it.
How to Keep Your Face Mask Clean
The CDC recommends washing your cloth mask after each use, either by hand or by using a washing machine on a gentle cycle with standard laundry detergent and the warmest water possible. (If you’re sensitive to perfumes or strong scents, consider using non-scented laundry detergent.) Afterwards, you can also toss it in the dryer on high heat.
If you can’t wash your mask right away, store it in a sealable plastic bag or case of some kind. If you notice that the fabric of the mask is damaged, it’s best to throw it away. Disposable surgical masks are intended for single use only and cannot be laundered, so throw them away when they’re soiled or damaged.
For N95 respirators, the maximum recommended use period is between 8 and 12 hours. In the early days of the pandemic when hospitals were experiencing serious N95 shortages, doctors were instructed by the inventor to extend the life of these by heating them for one hour, or steaming or boiling them for 5 minutes, and then allowing them to air dry. This technique preserves up to 98.5% filtering efficiency, but as production has accelerated over the course of the year, these measures have become less necessary. In a pinch, however, they will still help your N95 last until you can obtain a new one.
When you’re not wearing your face mask, be sure to store it carefully to keep it clean and accessible. Fold it so that the outer surface is inward against itself. It can be stored between uses in a clean sealable bag or container. To ensure you always have at least one clean mask ready to be worn, it’s a good idea to have at least two ready to wear on hand.
How to Wear Makeup with a Face Mask
By now we’ve all had plenty of opportunity to observe that after a masked outing, our makeup ends up coating the inside of the mask with a nice flesh-toned layer of foundation and smear of lipcolor and the lower half of our face is left bare and contour-less. To make matters worse, friction from the mask can cause breakouts and “maskne.” It’s a low-stakes problem, but a nuisance nonetheless.
A skin-nourishing routine when you’re not wearing a mask can help combat any blemishes, and applying a simple hypoallergenic face cream during the day preps the skin. When it comes to applying foundation and concealer, it’s advisable to avoid wearing it completely on skin that will be covered by your mask, as heavy makeup formulas don’t mix well with the humidity inside your mask and can clog your pores. If you feel you must put makeup on the lower half of your face, opt for light coverage, then use a setting spray or a translucent setting powder to create a protective barrier between your cosmetics and your mask. Bright, bold lipsticks will likely transfer to the inside of the mask, so stick to nude tones or colorless lip balms.
How to Be Stylish in a Mask
A protective face mask might hide your smile, but with so many eye-catching styles, materials and options on the market, you still have the chance to let your personality shine through! Die-hard sports fan? Get a mask with your team’s logo. More of an all-black-everything type? Look for a sleek dark mask to complete your ensemble. Ready to get a little wild? Don’t miss your window of opportunity to wear sequins where you’ve probably never worn them before.
For many of us, the transition to mask-wearing has not been an easy one. It may be tempting to look at these accessories as an annoyance, but, optimistically, we can also choose to regard them as an opportunity to keep ourselves well, to protect the vulnerable around us, and to add some extra pizzazz to our faces. Make sure you’ve got plenty of masks at home, in your purse, at work, in your vehicle or backpack… and your pocket.