How well a mask works depends on how well it fits

You’ll be more comfortable and safer if you wear a mask that is properly sized.
Mask fit and hygiene matter. Pixabay

At this time last year, it would have been unthinkable to see near-universal face mask wearing across North America. But that’s now the norm, especially in big cities. The change was rapid and swift and now, months into this new behavior, there’s still no standard for what makes a good mask, although we can tell you what makes a bad one. Popular Science asked a few experts for their top mask tips to help you and your loved ones stay safe.

  1. Cloth and disposable paper masks both work. Research so far indicates that cloth masks should be made of tightly woven cloth that’s two or three layers thick. When it comes to disposable masks, make sure you throw it out when you’re done with it—after all, it’s a biohazard. In both cases, remember that simple is better. Lots of decoration makes the masks hard to clean, and functional flourishes like valves are likely to make the mask less effective.
  2. Fit is extremely important. You’ll be a lot more comfortable—and a lot safer—if you wear a mask that fits right. “If you wear a mask that’s too small, and you’ve just started talking, it’s going to end up pulling it off your nose,” says John O’Horo, a Mayo Clinic infectious disease doctor who heads up the institution’s Personal Protective Equipment Task Force. If it’s too big, it might slip off your face or just move around a lot. Depending on the kind of mask, your breathing might also suck it into and out of your mouth, which is just uncomfortable. If you wear glasses, a correctly-sized mask will also help keep them from fogging up because of your escaping breath. Here are a few other tricks to help with that.
  3. Treat your mask like underwear. You wouldn’t wear underwear on your face instead of a mask—but two researchers are suggesting that, when it comes to face mask hygiene, you should think about what you learned about underwear as a child. Change your mask every day. “We’ve got lots of experience with underwear, and we have almost no experience with masks,” notes Daniel Oerther, a professor of environmental engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology and the coauthor of a recent editorial on masking. You should wash your mask after every wear because it’s contaminated with particles picked up on your day, your own breath, and even the face products you wear. Clean masks prevent infection but they also help keep you from getting the dread maskne.
  4. Experiment with different types of masks. “We are getting that experience,” notes Oerther’s co author Mona Shattell, associate dean and professor in the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing. For instance, she says, “I know, at the gym, I’m going to wear a paper mask,” which she says is lighter weight and more comfortable. “And when I’m out for a walk, I’ll wear my cloth mask.” In the end, pick the kind of mask that’s comfortable for the situation you’re in, which will probably make you more likely to wear it. Even a neck gaiter, which provides less protection than a cloth or surgical mask, is better than nothing.
  5. Be prepared for this advice to potentially change. Scientists are still learning more about mask-wearing and which kinds of masks are most effective. But that doesn’t mean the above advice is bad: It just means it’s the best advice we have for now. So don’t get discouraged if you learn that a practice you thought was safe isn’t, or if you learn something is safer than you thought. This is a process.

It’s worth remembering that mask-wearing isn’t the only safe COVID-19 behavior you need to be doing. Monitoring your own symptoms, washing your hands often, and observing social distancing rules are also key parts of the equation. Like mask-wearing, these are really new behaviors that a lot of people have transitioned to really quickly.

If you have more questions about how you should be wearing a mask, or anything else pandemic- related, head to the CDC’s COVID-19 resource page.