There’s no better visual indicator that we’re living in a “new normal” than the proliferation of face masks. No longer the hallmark of a hypochondriac, a face mask is now a badge of good citizenship. That’s because wearing one helps you protect yourself and others by limiting the spread of droplet diseases like COVID-19. This is particularly important now that we know that it can be spread by pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic carriers. But if you use a face mask incorrectly (and most people do), it’s rendered almost useless. With the help of experts, we’ve compiled a list of face mask mistakes that are very easy to make. Looking for more ways to protect yourself? Check out these 7 Precautions You Must Take Before Wearing a Mask.
1. Putting your mask on with unwashed hands.
There’s a reason your doctor washes their hand the instant they enter the exam room— it’s the first line of defense to keeping yourself and others safe from viruses. Wendy McCulloch, a Clinical Nurse Adviser at Optimum Medical, says people often forget this step, particularly if they’re applying their mask after leaving the house. She says, “If you’re out of the house, use hand sanitizer before putting on your mask. And when you get home, wash your hands straight away, even if you were wearing gloves outside.” That way, there’s less of a risk of cross-contamination. For more information on proper hand-washing technique, check out The No. 1 Mask Mistake You’re Probably Making.
2. Touching the front of your mask when you remove it.
Once you wear a mask outside, you should assume it is contaminated—even if you only picked up curbside delivery. For that reason, you should never touch the front of the mask itself when taking it off. “Don’t grab the mask with a full palm-and-fingers grip across the face,” cautions Cara Natterson, MD, founder of Worry Proof Consulting and author of Decoding Boys. “Instead, use your thumb and index finger to pull the mask away from your face and up and over your head.” This advice echoes the World Health Organization recommendation to take off your mask by removing the elastics or straps from behind your ears.
3. Sharing your mask with other people.
Sharing a mask with someone else—even someone who is in your “quarantine pod,” like your spouse or roommate— can be dangerous. Cara Pensabene, MD, Medical Director at EHE Health says, “Masks should always be worn by only one person, then tossed out if they are disposable, or washed properly. If you share masks, you could be passing the virus to the other person.” Consider buying cloth masks in fun patterns so each family member knows which mask is whose. And for more advice to pass on to your family, check out The One Thing You Must Tell Your Kids to Do Amid Coronavirus.
4. Adjusting your mask throughout the day.
We get it—masks are uncomfortable! But once you properly put on your mask, leave it where it is. Don’t adjust it. Pensabene says, “Don’t pull the mask away from your face to talk or just for a moment to breathe easier…. If you mistakenly touch your eyes, nose or mouth while adjusting your mask, it increases your risk of possible viral exposure.” And if you want to stay safe out there, make sure you know The One Type of Mask You Should Never Wear.
5. Storing your mask in your pocket.
Be mindful of where you store your mask, since it could harbor COVID-19 in its fibers—contaminating whatever surface it’s placed on. Pensabene explains, “If you store the mask in any way that allows it to come into contact with your personal belongings (like in your pocket), you’re allowing the virus to travel from person-to-person.” The CDC says you should store the mask in a plastic bag for maximum protection. And definitely don’t place the mask on an unclean surface, like in a grocery cart!
6. Spraying your mask with disinfectant.
Given that masks are a limited commodity, it seems logical to just disinfect and reuse them. However, Pensabene warns people against using disinfectants to clean masks. She says, “Reports indicate that spraying masks with disinfectants can create a secondary problem, called contact urticaria, which occurs when disinfectants are inhaled” and can cause skin swelling and redness. Plus, once your mask is wet, it’s rendered useless.
7. Leaving your mask at home when you go outside.
Ultimately, the biggest mask mistake is not wearing one. Think of mask-wearing as just another healthy habit you want to form. For example, if you were trying to exercise more regularly, you might leave your running shoes by the front door as a visual reminder. The same thing goes for your mask.
Natterson explains, “We’re more likely to repeat a behavior if [we] build it into [our] routine. So leave a mask on an entry table or hook hanging by the front door.”