How to Wear N95 Masks Properly

N95 instructions

Verywell Health / Nez Riaz

Key Takeaways

  • Each adult will be able to get three free N95 masks at a local pharmacy or community health center.
  • Before you wear an N95, take note of specific fit and usage guidelines.
  • N95s are designed to be single-use.

Last week, the Biden administration announced it would make free N95 masks available through pharmacies and community health centers. 

N95 respirators offer more protection against COVID-19 than other masks on the market, and they can filter out 95% of particles in the air.

In order for an N95 to work as intended, however, it needs to be worn properly. Some healthcare professionals worry that the general public has yet to receive adequate guidance on N95 usage.

Dina Velocci, DNP, CRNA, APRN, president of the American Association of Nurse Anesthesiology (AANA), told Verywell that more education about correct N95 usage is necessary for optimal protection.

Wearing an N95 requires a little more attention to details than a cloth or surgical mask. Here’s how to put one on and take one off properly:

Putting on an N95

Always wash your hands before putting on or taking off your mask. To put an N95 on, first put it in your hand with the nosepiece at your fingertips. Cover your mouth and nose with the mask, nosepiece up.

putting on n95

Verywell Health / Nez Riaz

An N95 comes with two straps which go over the back of your head—kind of like goggles—instead of looping them around the ears. Pull the straps over your head. The top strap should rest at the top back of your head and the bottom strap should be below your ears and around your neck. Make sure the straps are not crisscrossed.

Making Sure It Fits

You’ll need to ensure the mask fits well, too. Check the seal and conduct a smell or odor test.

Note: This should be the last time you touch the mask. You should not touch it after it’s secured or when you’re taking it off.

User Seal Check

When the mask is on, it should form a seal with your face. This means there should be no gaps between your face and the respirator.

Place your hands over the N95, inhale and exhale quickly to see if you feel any leakage of air. If there’s leakage around your nose, adjust your nosepiece. If you feel air leaking around the edges of the mask, adjust the straps.

Smell/Odor Test

Feel and look alone may not be enough to ensure a proper fit. Health authorities recommend doing an additional smell or odor test. 

In the test, a substance with a strong odor is sprayed into the air. If you can smell or taste it through your mask, your mask is not perfectly fit. You can do a DIY fit test by using a scented spray like Febreze at home, Velocci said.

“You shouldn’t be able to smell that in your mask,” she said. Febreze isn’t the best option for a fit test, she added, but it’s a common household product that could be used if better alternatives aren’t accessible.

Rigorous Fit Test

In healthcare settings, OSHA recommends spraying a substance like saccharin, an artificial sweetener that's used to make Sweet’n Low. To use saccharin as a test, you’ll need to dissolve the substance in boiled water and use a nebulizer to turn the liquid into a mist. You can find fit testing kits that come with saccharin and a nebulizer online, but they tend to be pricey.

Facial hair could prevent proper placement of your N95. In this case, smell or odor tests can help determine whether your mask is sealed.

Wearing and Taking off an N95

Be careful not to touch the mask while you’re wearing it or putting it on and taking it off. N95s are designed to be single-use, so ideally you should replace them after each use.

taking off n95

Verywell Health / Nez Riaz

To take off the N95, hold the straps and not the mask itself. Pull the bottom strap over your head first and then the top. Discard the mask immediately if possible.

If you must reuse a mask, Velocci said, you can place it on a clean surface, like a new sheet of aluminum foil over the countertop. You can spray it with a disinfectant and let it dry, but it’s not recommended, she added.

“That’s the best you can do,” Velocci said. “It’s so against our policy to reuse it. That’s not what we’ve done through the years. We’re just doing it now because we have limited resources.”

“Wash your hands in between everything,” she added. “Just consider everything is contaminated.”

In the earlier days of the pandemic when there was a shortage of N95s, some researchers also recommended disinfecting an N95 in an electric cooker, like the Instant Pot, for 50 minutes.

For the most specific guidelines on how to wear and handle your mask, check the mask manufacturer’s instructions.

What This Means For You

If you’re planning to wear N95 masks, make sure to learn how to handle and wear the mask properly through fit testing.

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.

3 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. Types of masks and respirators.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Filtering out confusion: frequently asked questions about respiratory protection.

  3. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Appendix A to §1910.134—Fit testing procedures (mandatory).

By Claire Wolters
Claire Wolters is a staff reporter covering health news for Verywell. She is most passionate about stories that cover real issues and spark change.