It's Time to Wear Our Masks

Apr 23, 2020

"On Wednesdays, we wear pink." - Regina George, Mean Girls

We have choices in life about who we listen to. There are trends, and there are necessities.

You’ve probably already noticed, if you’re going outside: it’s mask season. And it's because the experts recommend the widespread adoption of masks for the next few months. And so today, like other days, we've got our masks on when we're out. Here’s what you need to know.

Wait, I thought we weren’t supposed to wear masks. What changed?

Initially, the CDC wasn’t recommending the use of masks for the general public, in part because it wasn’t clear if the virus was primarily spread through large droplets (i.e the sort produced by coughing or sneezing) or if it could persist on small droplets hanging in the air (aerosolization) as well. Research has shown somewhat ambivalent results on whether or not Covid-19 can spread through the air, but for now, enough medical experts are worried about it. As a result, the CDC recommends that everyone take precautions. Therefore: mask up, cowpokes.

So will a mask protect me from catching COVID-19?

Even a really good mask doesn’t offer full protections, and is no replacement for the usual precautions: social distancing, washing your hands, and not touching your face. This is why even in Asian countries where masks are much more commonly used, social distancing and careful hygiene have been required to fight the pandemic. But if you’re doing those things—and you should be—then a mask offers a valuable extra layer of protection. A few studies conducted in households and colleges ‘show a benefit of masks,’ Raina MacIntyre, head of the Biosecurity Program at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, told Vox, “so it would be plausible that they would also protect in lower-intensity transmission settings such as in the general community.”

More importantly, a mask doesn’t so much protect the wearer as it protects people from the wearer. Masks catch the droplets that come out of your mouth when you cough, sneeze, yawn, laugh, or talk--which means those droplets aren’t going to get onto surfaces that other people touch. If you’re infected and don’t know it—or are asymptomatic—you’re at a much lower risk of spreading it to other people when wearing a mask. The more people who make sure they don’t spread the disease, the more people have a chance of not catching it. Do your part and wear a mask.

So should I go out and get a medical mask?

You’re probably thinking about the N95 respirator, which in theory is safer than looser-fitting surgery masks. But there’s a couple of catches: for one thing, they’re difficult to fit and use properly, and a mask that isn’t properly fitted is basically useless. (A 2016 review in the Canadian Medical Association Journal suggested that healthcare workers using N95 respirators rather than surgical masks for respiratory infections showed about the same amount of infections, probably due to improper use and a poor fit.) There’s also a severe shortage of this kind of protective equipment in hospitals, which is a real danger for the medical professionals, service workers, and other essential workers who are required to be in close proximity to sick people for most of the day.

So what kind of mask should I wear?

The CDC is now recommending either cloth or homemade masks. While cloth masks are much less effective than medical masks, they still offer more protection than no mask at all. A 2008 study published in PLOS ONE, suggests that masks made from t-shirts work about half as well as surgical masks at capturing virus-carrying particles. There’s a lot of DIY experimentation happening here, so cloth mask techniques are evolving quickly.

Homemade masks are a little more complex than just wrapping a bandana or scarf around your face, though. That may look stylish, but doesn’t work very well. A good rule of thumb is that you want your cloth mask to be breathable, but not to be able to see visible light through it. You have a couple of options for fabric types to use, and there are tradeoffs to all of them. One expert recommended blue car shop towels, which can be washed and reused. People can also use disposable dust and gas masks (what construction workers use), but these need filters changed fairly regularly and like N95s, are subject to supply chain disruptions.
A broad consensus is developing around fabrics that are slightly stretchy—pillowcases or 100-percent cotton t-shirts—are a good consensus choice, but need to be washed and dried continually to make sure they don’t trap bacteria.

The CDC offers a good set of basic tutorials for making masks with a sewing machine, cutting out a mask template from unused home fabric, or simply fashioning one out of a folded bandana or handkerchief and two hair ties. The latter is probably the easiest and cheapest to make. Whatever you decide to do, make a couple of them: cloth masks are machine washable, and that way you’ll be able to swap between them easily.

How do I use the mask safely?

Let’s walk through the best practices.

  • Wash your hands before and after putting the mask on. Doing so makes sure you don’t contaminate the mask before you wear it. This is a real danger: a contaminated mask makes you more likely to breathe in bacteria and viral material, not less.
  • Hold it in the correct spot. When you’re putting the mask on or taking it off, hold the ties or elastics — not the front of the mask! — to make sure you aren’t contaminating your fingers. Make sure you aren’t touching your eyes, mouth or nose while you put it on.
  • Orient it correctly. Always wear your mask with the same side pointing outward. (If you’re sewing your own, you can use two different colors, or simply mark one side with ink.) That makes sure that any droplets collected on the front stay as far from your mouth as possible before you wash it.
  • Make sure the mask fits snug against your face. You want to be able to breathe through it, but it shouldn’t leave much room for air to get in around the sides.
  • Don’t fidget with it or touch it while it’s on your face. Again, it defeats the purpose of the mask if you put your fingers on it while wearing it. If it feels weird and a little uncomfortable, but you can still breathe easily, then it’s doing its job.
  • Remove the mask entirely while you’re eating. Don’t just pull it down to your chin.
  • Wash your mask when you get home every day. Again, this is why it’s handy to have a couple of them, so you can trade them out when one’s being washed. Dry them by using a drying machine or simply hanging them out in the sun: the radiation in sunlight is a natural disinfectant.

Where should I be wearing the mask?

Anywhere you’re around people, which means pretty much any time you’re out in public. Grocery stores, walks in the park, running errands. If you’ve got a sick person in the house, wear masks in the common rooms as well. You don’t need to wear a mask when inside the home with those who live with you, as long as no one is sick. Also, you don’t have to wear one when being outdoors alone and away from others. Remember: the mask does not make it safer for you to get within six feet of people, stop washing your hands, or stop taking other precautions.

How long are we likely to be wearing masks in public?

It’s uncertain and difficult to say: it’s probably best to get used to wearing them for the foreseeable future, while medical professionals and policy administrators figure out when it’s possible for people to stop. Make it part of your daily routine, and you’ll get used to it pretty quickly.

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