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An older man demonstrates the proper way to wear a mask.

Mask etiquette during COVID

Note: This article was last updated in November 2020. For the latest updates on COVID-19, see

Masks are one of the most effective ways to reduce the spread of COVID-19, but they only work when worn correctly. Jemese Richards-Boyd, M.D., a Piedmont primary care physician, shares the most common mask-wearing mistakes she sees and best approaches to ensure you and others stay safe.

Why you need to wear a mask

“It is important to wear a mask to prevent the spread of respiratory droplets in the air,” says Dr. Richards-Boyd. “This is especially important when you are in an indoor space that is not well-ventilated.”

While masks are most beneficial for preventing you from spreading the virus to others, they do offer you some protection as well, she adds.

When to wear a mask

“I recommend wearing a mask whenever you are in any indoor setting other than your own home, at large gatherings and not able to socially distance,” says Dr. Richards-Boyd.

The right way to wear a mask

“The most common mistake I see is people wearing cloth masks that are too big for their face, so it doesn’t cover their nose and requires frequent adjusting,” she says.

Your mask must cover both your mouth and nose to be effective. It should also fit securely to your face and not slide down when you talk. Many masks now come with adjustable ear loops and wire nose bridges, which help you customize the fit to the size and shape of your face.

How to put on and take off your mask

“Other common mistakes I see are people placing their masks on tables or other frequently touched surfaces and frequently touching their masks,” says Dr. Richards-Boyd.

She recommends the following steps when putting on and taking off your mask:

  • Use hand sanitizer or wash your hands before touching your mask.

  • Put it on or take it off touching only the ear loops, not the mask itself.

  • After putting on or taking off the mask, use hand sanitizer or wash your hands again.

  • After removing your mask for the day, remove the filter (if you use one) and throw it away.

  • Avoid touching your mask with dirty hands when you’re out and about.

Where to store your mask when it’s not in use

If you remove your mask when you’re in the car between errands or eating a meal at a restaurant, place it in a paper bag or resealable bag, not on a high-touch surface, like the table.

When and how to wash your mask

You should wear a clean mask each day. Since it may not be feasible to wash your mask daily, consider purchasing a few extras so you always have a clean one on hand. Be sure to wash each new mask before wearing it.

Check the label of your face covering for washing instructions. If it’s washing machine-safe, you can toss the mask in with your regular load of laundry. If you’re sensitive to fragrance, use fragrance-free laundry detergent.

If it’s dryer-safe, you can dry it with your laundry as well. However, if your mask has a metal nose bridge, don’t put it in the dryer and let it air-dry instead. Wait for the mask to fully dry before wearing it again.

You can also hand wash and air-dry your mask. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends using a bleach solution for handwashing masks. Keep in mind that bleach can alter the mask’s color if it’s not made of white fabric.

Choose a bleach that contains 5.25% to 8.25% sodium hypochlorite. Mix 4 teaspoons of bleach with 1 quart of room-temperature water. Soak the mask for five minutes, then rinse it with clean water and allow it to air-dry.

Wear a mask, wash your hands and watch your distance – these measures save lives.

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