Mistakes That Make Your Face Mask Less Effective

New normal after coronavirus pandemic woman with trendy mask.

Mistake 1: Forgoing a Mask

Anyone ages 2 and older should wear a cloth face covering around people outside of their household, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

It’s particularly important “in high-risk places where it’s difficult to socially distance,” Kate Grabowski, PhD, an assistant professor in the department of pathology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, tells LIVESTRONG.com. She allows that there’s probably not a lot of benefit to wearing a mask if you’re, say, running alone in the woods.

The mask acts as a barrier, preventing infectious droplets from landing on other people or making their way into the air, according to the CDC. This is key, because COVID-19 is spread most often through respiratory droplets or aerosols (as opposed to shared surfaces), and the closer together people are, the higher the risk of transmission, according to a September 2020 review in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

The potential for airborne spread of COVID-19 is particularly worrisome in enclosed, crowded or poorly ventilated spaces, according to a July 2020 commentary in Clinical Infectious Diseases signed by more than 200 scientists.

“Handwashing and social distancing are appropriate, but in our view, insufficient to provide protection from virus-carrying respiratory microdroplets released into the air by infected people,” the authors caution.

Wearing a cloth mask in such venues won’t eliminate infectious emissions, Donald K. Milton, MD, DrPH, professor of applied environmental health at the University of Maryland School of Public Health in College Park, Maryland, and a co-author of the commentary, tells LIVESTRONG.com. “But if everybody’s doing it and if you ventilate those spaces, the amount of exposure will go way down, the risk of infection goes way down and we won’t have these super-spreading events.”

Mistake 2: Wearing a Mask That Doesn’t Fit

It’s almost impossible to avoid images in the news or real-life encounters with adults and kids wearing masks with their nostrils exposed. Sometimes you’ll see people whose masks slip down as they’re speaking.

“Make sure your nose, your mouth and your chin are covered when wearing your mask.”

Proper fit is key, says Kendra McMillan, RN, MPH, senior policy advisor for nursing practice and work environment at the American Nurses Association in Silver Spring, Maryland. “It shouldn’t be so tight that it’s impeding your ability to breathe, but it also should have a fit along the face so that it can stay in place,” she tells LIVESTRONG.com.

“You want to make sure your nose, your mouth and your chin are covered when wearing your mask,” McMillan says.

Mistake 3: Touching or Tugging at Your Mask

Remember, mask wearing is primarily intended to prevent the spread of infection to others. So, if you’re constantly pulling it off, that “defeats the entire purpose,” Grabowski notes. “If you take off your mask and then you cough or start talking, you could potentially be spreading COVID-19.”

Keeping that face covering in place limits the amount of virus that you emit into the local environment.

Touching the front of the mask also poses a risk to the wearer. If the outer surface has been exposed to viral particles and you touch the mask and then touch your face, “you could potentially infect yourself,” Grabowski says.

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