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COVID-19: Dos and Don'ts for Wearing a Face Mask or Covering

masks, bandana, scarf

As the 2019 novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, continues to spread across the world in spite of containment efforts already underway, health officials in the United States have expanded recommendations for wearing face coverings in public.

Current Recommendations

On April 3, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made a national recommendation:

"CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission."

The CDC made clear the general public should be using cloth face coverings, explaining surgical masks or N-95 respirators need to be reserved for healthcare workers and first responders. The CDC also emphasizes the continued importance of maintaining six feet of distance from others whenever possible.

This recommendation follows city-specific guidelines issued a few days earlier in Los Angeles and New York, in which mayors advised residents to cover their faces with articles of clothing like scarves and bandanas if they must go out.

The idea behind these recommendations is that seemingly-healthy people should be covering their faces when out in public to prevent unknowingly sharing COVID-19 since even people with no symptoms can spread the disease. People who have symptoms or are known to have tested positive should already be in isolation and/or be wearing face coverings to stop the spread of the disease.

The World Health Organization (WHO) stopped short of changing its own recommendation on face coverings for the general public, but leaders said in an April 3 media briefing that they understand and support community-level guidance in favor of face coverings. WHO says only healthcare workers and people who are sick or caring for someone who is sick need to wear face masks.

How to Make a Cloth Face Covering

While scarfs and bandanas will do the job, you can also create your own cloth face covering that fits more snugly over your nose and mouth and more closely resembles a mask. The simplest method doesn't require any sewing and relies on items you probably already have around your home. All you need to do is fold.

Materials You'll Need

  • 1 Bandana, scarf, or handkerchief (or any fabric approximately 20" x 20")
  • 2 Rubber bands
1:17

Make Your Own No-Sew Face Mask

Where to Buy a Cloth Face Covering

Choosing to purchase a facial covering can be a small way to help during the COVID-19 crisis. Many retailers are temporarily using their production lines for non-medical grade masks, and donating the proceeds—or masks themselves—to communities and organizations in need. A few examples include:

Purchasing a facial covering can also offer the benefit of supporting smaller businesses impacted by COVID-19. Etsy is a great resource. 

How to Wear Your Cloth Face Covering

Regardless of the style you choose, the CDC recommends that your face covering:

  • fits snugly against the side of your face
  • is secured with ties or ear loops
  • includes multiple layers of fabric
  • lets you breathe without restriction

How to Clean Your Cloth Face Covering

Remove the rubber bands—if you used them—and wash the fabric in the washing machine. While the CDC stops short of saying how often you should clean a face covering, frequent washing is advised.

how to wear a face mask
Verywell / Ellen Lindner

Concerns

There are two major concerns among healthcare providers about a recommendation for face coverings:

  1. Public mask use—particular N95 respirators—could further divert medical supplies needed by frontline providers
  2. Mask wearing and facial covering could provide a false sense of security to the public, prompting them to ignore social distancing rules

Researchers found that widespread covering use in coronavirus outbreaks throughout Asia did not reduce the spread of infection, and there are even studies indicating that cloth masks can actually increase the risk of infection. Still, in light of the uncertainty regarding virus transmission and behavior, and in an attempt to curtail its spread, covering up in some capacity likely won't hurt.

How COVID-19 Transmission Works

The primary way COVID-19 spreads is through large droplets that can be found in a person's sneeze or cough, or from surfaces contaminated by these droplets. Those droplets are heavy and don't travel far, which is why health officials have recommended six feet of physical distancing to prevent the spread of the virus.

In some cases, however, the virus can become airborne for hours. This is known to happen in healthcare settings when patients are placed on a ventilator, receive breathing treatments, or undergo other invasive treatments. During these high-risk procedures, health officials have recommended that healthcare providers use airborne transmission precautions, which calls for an N95 respirator to filter out smaller infectious particles in the air. There has been no evidence, according to WHO, that there is a danger to the public of airborne transmission.

New Transmission Information

Health officials have acknowledged that there is still much to learn when it comes to COVID-19. Viruses are known to mutate, and there have been theories on more than one strain of the virus circulating and droplet transmission through air conditioning ducts.

Harvey Fineberg, MD, PhD, former dean of the Harvard School of Public Health and chair of the Standing Committee on Emerging Infectious Diseases for the National Academies of Science, wrote an April 1 letter warning national leaders that COVID-19 could possibly be transmitted simply through breathing or talking. These kinds of emerging evidence will continue to influence recommendations.

Feelings of fear, anxiety, sadness, and uncertainty are normal during the COVID-19 pandemic. Being proactive about your mental health can help to keep both your mind and body stronger. Learn about the best online therapy options available to you.

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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recommendation Regarding the Use of Cloth Face Coverings, Especially in Areas of Significant Community-Based Transmission. April 3, 2020.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How to Protect Yourself and Others. Updated April 2, 2020.

  3. World Health Organization. When To Use a Mask. Updated 2020.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Use of Cloth Face Coverings to Help Slow the Spread of COVID-19. Updated April 4, 2020.

  5. Feng, S. Rational use of face masks in the COVID-19 pandemic. The Lancet. Updated March 20, 2020.

  6. MacIntrye CR, et al. A cluster randomised trial of cloth masks compared with medical masks in healthcare workers. BMJ. Updated March 30, 2020.

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How COVID-19 Spreads. Updated April 2, 2020.

  8. World Health Organization. Modes of transmission of virus causing COVID-19: implications for IPC precaution recommendations. Updated March 29, 2020.

  9. Tang X, et al. On the origin and continuing evolution of SARS-CoV-2. National Science Review. Updated March 3, 2020.

  10. Lu J, et al. COVID-19 Outbreak Associated with Air Conditioning in Restaurant, Guangzhou, China, 2020. Emerging Infectious Diseases. Updated April 2, 2020.

  11. Fineberg H. Rapid Expert Consultation on the Possibility of Bioaerosol Spread of SARS-CoV-2 for the COVID-19 Pandemic. The National Academies Press. Updated April 1, 2020.

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