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

cloth face mask

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When the novel coronavirus emerged in 2019, it moved quickly, effectively shutting down the global economy by spring 2020 when lockdown orders were put in place to control the spread of the virus. In the months that followed, safety measures were key to controlling the spread of the virus as communities tried to reopen. Requirements for face coverings—both to protect the wearer and others—moved from a public health discussion to a political debate.

With a change in presidential administrations in 2021, new federal leadership sought to unify piecemeal mask regulations around the country and control the spread of the virus. Masks or face coverings are a strong recommendation or required in some but not all places. Health officials and President Joe Biden urged people in areas with rising cases to remain vigilant as vaccination efforts increased, but a number of states were already on a path to reopening and abandoning mask mandates.

Find out what you need to know about mask wearing, the spread of COVID-19, and where you have to wear a mask.

Current Recommendations

On February 2, 2021, the CDC required face masks that covered both the nose and mouth to be worn on all forms of public transportation, including airplanes, buses, trains, ships, ferries, subways, taxis, and rideshares. This requirement was for both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals. Previously, the CDC had offered only suggestions for mask wearing and left regulation of masks in public to local communities or businesses.

However, the CDC announced on June 10, 2021 that masks would not be required while outdoors (or any open-air area) on the premises of transportation hubs or if traveling in an outdoor area of a vehicle.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations for mask wearing also now depend on whether or not you are fully vaccinated.

However, masks should not be placed on children under 2 or anyone who has trouble breathing or is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.

The CDC continues to recommend reserving N95 masks for healthcare workers, even though their use has become prevalent among the general public.

Fully Vaccinated Individuals

On July 27, 2021, the CDC released updated interim public health recommendations for fully vaccinated people, including scenarios where wearing a mask is still recommended. You are considered fully vaccinated at least two weeks after the second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or at least two weeks after receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

According to the CDC's interim recommendations, if you are fully vaccinated, you can participate in many of the activities you did before the pandemic without a mask. However, it is recommended that you continue to wear a mask in the following scenarios to reduce your risk of infection with the Delta variant and possibly spreading it to others:

  • Indoor public settings if they are in an area of substantial or high transmission
  • When using public transportation (not in an open-air area)

Vaccinated persons may choose to wear a mask, especially if they or someone in their household is immunocompromised or at increased risk for severe COVID-19 disease. This may also be the case if someone in their household is not vaccinated.

If you are immunocompromised, consult your healthcare provider for guidance since you may need to take additional precautions.

Local mask requirements vary and may change. Check your city, county, or state government website for the latest regulations in your area.

Unvaccinated Individuals

If you are unvaccinated, it's still recommended that you wear a mask in most settings, but there are some outdoor scenarios where it's considered low-risk to go without one so long as you can keep a physical distance of at least 6 feet from other people and frequently wash your hands.

According to the CDC, it's low risk to go without a mask in the following scenarios:

  • Walk, run, roll, or bike outdoors with members of your household
  • Attend a small outdoor gathering with fully vaccinated family and friends

You should wear masks in all other public settings, including small outdoor gatherings that include other individuals who aren't vaccinated.

Masks are also recommended if someone in your household has symptoms of COVID-19 or recently tested positive for the disease.

How Face Masks Work

COVID-19 spreads through large droplets that travel into the air when a person coughs, sneezes, talks, shouts, or sings. These droplets can then land in the mouths or noses of people who are near them, or they may breathe these droplets in. Masks act as a barrier that prevents your respiratory droplets from reaching others and those from others from infecting you. Studies have shown that masks reduce the spray of droplets when worn over the nose and mouth, and lower transmission and case count in areas with mask usage.

You should wear a mask even if you don’t feel sick, because several studies have shown that people with COVID-19 who never develop symptoms and those who are not yet showing symptoms can still spread the virus to other people. 

Dos and Don’ts of Wearing Face Masks and Coverings

As mask-wearing regulations evolved, so did guidance on how to wear face masks to achieve the best protection. Not all masks are created equal, and how you put your mask on, take it off, and store it all matter.

Current mask guidance from the CDC includes:

  • Wear a mask that is made of at least two layers of breathable fabric.
  • Masks should completely cover your nose and mouth.
  • Masks should fit snugly to your face with no gaps.
  • Nose wires can help ensure a good fit on face masks.
  • The use of face shields instead of a mask is not recommended at this time.
  • If you use a gaiter face covering, you should use two or fold it into two layers.
  • Do not use masks with ports or exhalation valves.
  • N95s should be reserved for use by healthcare workers. These masks also need to be fit-tested to ensure protection.
  • KN95 masks may be appropriate for people who are at high risk of a severe COVID infection or when you must be in close contact with others for long periods of time.
  • Cold weather gear like scarves is not a substitute for a mask in indoor spaces.

N95 and KN95 masks both filter 95% of airborne particles they encounter. The difference between the two is where the mask is certified: N95 masks are certified in the United States, while KN95 masks are certified in China.

How Many Layers Do I Need?

The CDC recommends that cloth masks have at least two layers, while the World Health Organization recommends three layers.

The CDC also supports double masking, or mask layering. New research revealed that wearing both a surgical mask and a cloth mask over it could reduce exposure by more than 90%. The agency says the cloth mask should push the edges of the disposable mask against your face.

It’s important to note that the CDC recommends against layering two disposable masks. You should also not combine a KN95 mask with any other mask.

How to Clean and Reuse Your Face Masks

Not all masks are reusable. The CDC offers guidance on how to clean masks for the safest reuse:

  • Cloth masks should be washed when they are dirty or at least once each day.
  • Masks that are dirty or wet should be stored in a plastic bag and washed as soon as possible.
  • Dry cloth masks should be stored in a paper bag between uses.
  • Regular laundry detergent and washer settings are adequate for cleaning cloth masks.
  • Dry masks in a dryer or allow to air dry.

Some masks are intended for single use only, including disposable medical masks and KN95 masks.

Where to Buy Face Masks

Disposable masks are now sold online and at most retailers. The CDC recommends choosing disposable masks that are made of multiple layers of nonwoven material and have a nose wire. 

Major organizations have purchased counterfeit respirators that are falsely marketed and sold as National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health-approved. Most counterfeit masks or masks that offer inadequate protection are sold through third-party sellers.

The CDC offers some tips on how to spot counterfeit respirators:

  • No markings at all on the filtering facepiece respirator
  • No approval number on the filtering facepiece respirator or headband
  • No NIOSH markings
  • NIOSH spelled incorrectly
  • Presence of decorative fabric or other decorative add-ons like sequins
  • Claims that the respirator is approved for use by children (NIOSH does not approve any type of respiratory protection for children.)
  • Filtering facepiece respirator has ear loops instead of headbands

You can verify the approval number on the NIOSH Certified Equipment List (CEL) or the NIOSH Trusted-Source page to find out if the respirator has been approved by NIOSH.

How to Make Your Own Face Masks

You can make your own cloth face covering at home, and the simplest method doesn’t require any sewing. Some methods use items you probably already have around your home, and all you need to do is fold.

Materials You’ll Need

  • One bandana, scarf, or handkerchief (or any fabric approximately 20" x 20")
  • Two 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.

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

To clean your face covering, remove the rubber bands—if you used them—and wash the fabric in the washing machine.

how to wear a face mask
Verywell / Ellen Lindner

Concerns

Early in the pandemic there were two major concerns among healthcare providers about a recommendation for face coverings:

  1. Public mask use—particularly 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.

Studies in early 2020 weren’t clear on the benefit of mask wearing, and some people became concerned that mask wearing may even increase the risk of infection. However, the CDC has made it clear that newer research that came to light later in the pandemic demonstrated that mask wearing was highly effective when it came to reducing community spread of the virus.

A Word From Verywell

Mask wearing and social distancing are still important ways to prevent the transmission of the novel coronavirus even as more people get the COVID-19 vaccine. To make sure your mask is protecting you from COVID-19, be sure to choose a mask that has multiple layers and fits your face properly, and wear it correctly. You can keep yourself, your family, and others around you safe by wearing a mask and doing so properly.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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14 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.
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  11. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Counterfeit respirators/misrepresentation of NIOSH-approval. Updated July 15, 2021.

  12. Feng S, Shen C, Xia N, Song W, Fan M, Cowling BJ. Rational use of face masks in the COVID-19 pandemicLancet Respir Med. 2020;8(5):434-436. doi:10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30134-X

  13. MacIntyre CR, Dung TC, Seale H, Chughtai A. COVID-19, shortages of masks and the use of cloth masks as a last resort. BMJ Open. Published online March 30, 2020.

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