People nationwide have been donning paper surgical masks and N-95 respirator masks to prevent COVID-19. Learn more about proper face mask protocol to keep your family safe. 

By Nicole Harris
Updated November 11, 2020
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Check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Parents.com's COVID-19 Guide for up-to-date information on statistics, disease spread, and travel advisories.

As the coronavirus spreads across America, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the use of cloth face masks in public settings where social distancing might be difficult. The organization also advises wearing cloth face masks around people outside of your household. N-95 masks are not advocated for widespread use because they should be reserved for health care workers who need them most, says Aimee Ferraro, Ph.D., senior core faculty member for Walden University’s Master of Public Health program.

So how exactly do face masks stop the spread of COVID-19, and how do you wear them properly? We spoke with experts to learn more about the current recommended guidelines.

How Do Masks Prevent COVID-19?

Masks not only protect those around you, but they can actually help to protect you, according to updated CDC guidance.

The coronavirus partly spreads through droplets released when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets may travel up to six feet, and they can cause infection after landing in someone’s eyes, nose, or ears. COVID-19 may also spread through “airborne particles” that stick around after coughing, sneezing, talking, or exhaling. Face masks work by containing these droplets, which protects you and everyone around you. It’s important to wear a mask even if you don’t have symptoms, because asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic COVID-19 carriers can still spread the illness.

“Masks are most likely to reduce the spread of COVID-19 when they are widely used by people in public settings," according to the CDC. “The spread of COVID-19 can be reduced when masks are used along with other preventive measures, including social distancing, frequent hand washing, and cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces.”

Credit: ArtistGNDphotography/Getty Images

What's the Best Type of Face Mask?

Two types of face masks—paper or cloth masks and N-95 respirator masks—can help prevent COVID-19 transmission. Other types, such as masks with one-way valves, aren’t as effective. Here’s how they compare. 

Cloth or Paper Masks: Most people you see in public are wearing cloth masks or paper surgical masks. These barriers can block respiratory droplets, but they do not protect against airborne particles, says Dr. Ferraro. In other words, a sick person can wear a paper/cloth mask to prevent spreading their infected droplets through coughing and sneezing. But a healthy person won’t necessarily be protected because air particles might be small enough to pass around the mask, says Sarah Fankhauser, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology and infectious disease expert at Oxford College of Emory University. 

N95 Masks: “N95 face masks are the most effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19 because they block respiratory droplets that carry coronavirus, as well as 95 percent of airborne particles that might spread the illness,” says Dr. Ferraro. The tighter fit prevents large and small airborne particles from slipping around the edges. Most health care providers rely on N95 masks when dealing with infectious diseases, such as the coronavirus. The CDC urges the general public to avoid wearing N95 masks. “These masks should absolutely be reserved for health care workers who are putting their lives on the line,” says Dr. Fankhauser.

Masks with Valves: Some face masks have a one-way valve for exhaled air. However, according to the CDC, “this can allow exhaled respiratory droplets to reach others and potentially spread the COVID-19 virus. Therefore, CDC does not recommend using masks if they have an exhalation valve or vent.”

When Should I Wear a Face Mask?

The CDC says that the general public should wear masks in public and around people outside of their household, especially in areas where it's difficult to practice social distancing. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) stresses that this guidance applies to anyone over age 2. Younger babies risk suffocation when wearing masks, since they can't let you know if they're struggling to breathe.

There are also exceptions to the recommended mask rule. For example, if you have a confirmed or suspected COVID-19 case, wear a mask whenever you interact with someone—even members of your household. “For example, you should wear it when you are sharing a room, in a vehicle, visiting the doctor, or going to the grocery store,” says Dr. Ferraro. Caregivers coming within six feet of an infected person should wear a mask to protect themselves from droplets, says Dr. Nichols.

How Do I Properly Use a Mask?

Wearing face masks improperly may actually increase your risk of the coronavirus, according to U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams. That’s because infected particles could seep through the edges if you adjust the mask or take it off improperly. Here is the proper way to use one.

1. Choose a paper or cloth mask. “Currently the N95 mask is in short supply, as it acts to prevent inhalation and exhalation of virus on particles of dust. A  simple surgical mask or cloth mask is fine for most,” says Michael Hall, M.D., a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) vaccine provider who worked through the 2009 flu pandemic, providing H1N1 vaccines to his Miami patients. Only use a N95 respirator mask if advised by your health care provider.  

2. Wash your hands. According to Dr. Ferraro, you should wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. You can also use hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol in a pinch.

3. Put on the mask. “Cover your mouth and nose with the mask and pull the straps over the back of your head,” says Dr. Ferraro. “Make sure there are no gaps between your face and the mask.”

4. Don’t fidget with it. When wearing the mask, you should avoid touching your face and the mask, or else you risk letting infected particles get inside. 

5. Replace when needed. Replace the mask when it gets damp and do not reuse single-use masks. “To remove the mask, take it off from behind, discard it immediately in a closed trash can, and clean your hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer,” says Dr. Ferraro. You can also wash cloth masks, if they're made for reuse.

What If I Don’t Have a Face Mask?

If you don’t have a face mask on hand—or you don’t want to deplete the supply on the market—you can make your own with a scarf, handkerchief, bandana, or other fabric. “Some studies have shown that any barrier that limits the spread of respiratory droplets from coughs and sneezes can be helpful,” says Dr. Ferraro. Indeed, “some areas are asking people to make cloth face masks or use 3D printing to make up for the shortage of face masks for health care workers.”

Americans can also use other prevention methods, including covering your cough and sneeze, practicing social distancing, and washing your hands frequently. “You can help protect your family through washing hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, and cleaning and disinfecting surfaces often,” says Eric Ball, M.D., a pediatrician at CHOC Children’s Hospital in California. 

It’s especially important to wash your hands after using the restroom, before eating, and before touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. Also clean up whenever you might’ve come in contact with contaminated droplets. 

What’s more, you should “avoid touching your face with your hands and teach your children how to properly cough and sneeze into their elbow or a tissue,” adds Dr. Ball. He recommends staying in your home as much as possible and maintaining at least six feet of distance from other people if you must go out in public.

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