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

masks, bandana, scarf

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 piecemealed 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

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that people wear masks in public settings, at events and gatherings, and anywhere they will be around other people. Masks are recommended also if someone in your household has symptoms of COVID-19 or recently tested positive for the disease. However, masks should not be placed on young children under 2 or anyone who has trouble breathing or is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.

Effective February 2, 2021, CDC requires face masks that cover 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 is the strongest by the agency yet. Previously, CDC had offered only suggestions for mask wearing and left regulation of masks in public to local communities or businesses.

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

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

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, as well as 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 regulation 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 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
  • N-95s 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 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 it encounters. The difference between the two is where the mask is certified: N95 masks are certified in the U.S., while KN95 masks are certified in China.  

How Many Layers Do I Need?

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

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 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. 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 it 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. CDC recommends choosing disposable masks that are made of multiple layers of non-woven 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. 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—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 fit 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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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. The White House. Press briefing by White House COVID-19 response team and public health officials. Updated March 29, 2021.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Order: Wearing of face masks while on conveyances and at transportation hubs. Updated January 29, 2021.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Use of cloth face coverings to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Updated April 4, 2020.

  4. Dbouk T, Drikakis D. On respiratory droplets and face masks. Phys Fluids (1994). 2020 Jun 1;32(6):063303. doi:10.1063/5.0015044

  5. Johansson MA, Quandelacy TM, Kada S, Prasad PV, Steele M, Brooks JT, Slayton RB, Biggerstaff M, Butler JC. SARS-CoV-2 Transmission From People Without COVID-19 Symptoms. JAMA Netw Open. 2021 Jan 4;4(1):e2035057. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.35057

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Your guide to masks. Updated February 10, 2021.

  7. Brooks JT, Beezhold DH, Noti JD, Coyle JP, Derk RC, Blachere FM, Lindsley WG. Maximizing Fit for Cloth and Medical Procedure Masks to Improve Performance and Reduce SARS-CoV-2 Transmission and Exposure, 2021. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2021 Feb 19;70(7):254-257. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm7007e1

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

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

  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). Updated Nov. 20, 2020.

Additional Reading