Face Mask 101: Types, Proper Usage, Disposal, and More

To help you feel reassured and protected from infectious diseases like COVID-19, this complete guide to face masks and coverings will help you understand the proper and most effective ways to wear them, remove them, and discard them. This guide also discusses which protective mask is most beneficial, and how you can better protect yourself and the people around you from the pandemic.

First, what is a surgical mask?

A surgical mask is, perhaps, one of the most common face covers available on a global scale. Each of these loose-fitting and disposable masks have elastic bands or ties (whether adjustable or not) that you can loop behind your ears to secure the mask in place.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), wearing a three-ply surgical mask properly may block transmission of large-particle microorganisms from droplets, splatters, splashes, and sprays. The mask may also reduce hand-to-face contact, which is accountable for a substantial portion of human respiratory tract infections.

The three-ply layers of a surgical mask work as follows:

  • The inner layer absorbs moisture from exhaled air.
  • The middle layer helps filter certain pathogens.
  • The outer layer repels body fluids, including water and blood.

It is important to understand, however, that the edges of surgical masks cannot form a tight seal around the nose or mouth area. Therefore, they cannot inhibit minuscule airborne particles, such as those transmitted through sneezing or coughing.

When should you wear a face mask?

WHO recommends wearing a surgical mask only if you:

  • Have a cough, fever, or other respiratory symptoms.
  • Have cancer or a weak immune system, which makes you immune-compromised.
  • Are healthy, but caring for someone with an illness. In this case, wear a mask when you are within 6 feet or closer to the patient.

In brief, although a surgical mask helps filter out larger respiratory droplets, it may not protect you from contracting CVOID-19 or SARS-CoV-2. As a matter of fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not recommend wearing surgical masks or N95 respirators to protect from respiratory illnesses like the novel coronavirus. Instead of the general public, the CDC stresses that healthcare professionals and first responders need these supplies, especially since there is currently a shortage of them.

What is an N95 respirator?

Unlike a surgical mask, an N95 respirator is usually form-fitted to the size and shape of the face. Because they fit more snugly, there is less opportunity for small airborne particles to penetrate through the loose corners of the mask.

A well-fitted N95 respirator usually filters pathogens in the air much better than a surgical mask, blocking up to 95 percent of tiny (0.3 micron) test particles. However, they also have their limitations. For example, the results of a 2016 systematic review found no significant difference between surgical masks and N95 respirators when used by healthcare professionals to prevent transmission of respiratory infections in clinical settings. A 2019 clinical trial supported these findings.

What is a cloth face covering?

The CDC does, on the other hand, urge the general public to use cloth face coverings instead, which may prevent COVID-19 from spreading further. The CDC has even provided instructions on how to make your own fabric face covering at home. According to the organization’s website, “Your cloth face covering may protect them. Their cloth face covering may protect you.”

What is the correct way to wear a face mask?

Here are the steps to putting on a face mask:

  • Step 1: Wash your hands thoroughly with liquid soap and water for at least 20 seconds before reaching for your surgical mask, N95 respirator, or cloth mask. If you are outdoors or in a rush and soap is inaccessible, you can use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer as an alternative. Just keep in mind that soap disinfects best.
  • Step 2: Check your mask for tears, broken loops, and other defects.
  • Step 3: For surgical masks, ensure to position the colored side, which is typically blue or green, outward.
  • Step 4: If your protective face mask has:
    • Ear loops: Hold the mask by both loops and place one loop over each ear.
    • Ties: First, hold the mask by the upper strings and tie them in a secure bow near the crown of your head. After which, do the same with the bottom strings, but tie them near the nape of your neck. The same process applies to masks with dual elastic bands: rather than tying a bow, simply pull the bands over your head and position them against the crown of your head and nape of your neck.
  • Step 5: If your surgical mask has a metallic strip, ensure to position it against the bridge of your nose and mold it into shape using your fingers.
  • Step 6: Pull the bottom of the face mask over your mouth and chin. Ensure that the fit is as snug as possible.
  • Step 7: Do not touch or move the mask once in position.
  • Step 8: If your surgical mask or N95 respirator gets damp or soiled, replace it with a new one right away. For other protective coverings, use the CDC’s guide on how to wash cloth face coverings.

What is the right way to remove and discard a face mask?

To avoid transferring any germs onto your hands or face, it is important to know how to remove your face mask correctly:

  • Step 1: Wash your hands thoroughly before removing your mask.
  • Step 2: Do not touch the face mask itself since it could be contaminated. Instead, hold it by the loops, ties, or bands.
  • Step 3: Remove the mask from your face after unhooking both ear loops; untying the bottom bow first, then the top one; or removing the bottom band first by lifting it over your head, and then doing the same with the top band.
  • Step 4: While holding the loops, ties, or bands of the face mask, discard it by placing it in a covered trash bin.
  • Step 5: Wash your hands again.

The Bottom Line

Although putting on and taking off face masks correctly may help protect you and the health of people around you from contracting or transmitting an illness, evidence suggests that using a mask alone cannot always provide protection against certain pathogens. According to the FDA, mask wearing aside, the most effective preventive step is to avoid exposure to the virus. They recommend practicing social distancing, frequent handwashing, and ultimately—staying home.

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