Is your mask as effective as it could be?

N95 masks wait to be packed into boxes at Zagg headquarters in Midvale on April 14, 2020. The CDC recently updated their guidelines on mask choice, usage and disposal.

N95 masks wait to be packed into boxes at Zagg headquarters in Midvale on April 14, 2020. The CDC recently updated their guidelines on mask choice, usage and disposal. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently updated its guide on how to wear and care for your mask most effectively.

The science behind masks has shown that masks work in preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, but not all masks are made or worn equally. How do you get the most out of your masks? How do you wash them and store them so they are keeping you as safe as possible?

A recent study of around 350,000 in 600 villages in Bangladesh showed that masks are effective when worn properly, especially surgical masks. It also showed that mask wearing across an entire community successfully protected older and at-risk people.

So, how does the CDC suggest you make the most of your mask, and how do you make sure to dispose of it or clean it properly so you don't risk undoing all the effort of wearing a mask?

Disposable masks

Disposable masks are widely available and effective. However, they don't always have a close fit. The most effective ones have multiple layers and nose wire to bend the mask securely around the nose with no gaps. Gaps on the side can be fixed by knotting the ear loops to pull the mask tighter on the face and tucking in any extra material. There are also braces that are made to help disposable masks fit better.

Removal and disposal
Disposable masks should not be reused, meaning they can create a fair amount of waste compared to cloth masks that can be washed. If the mask gets wet or dirty while worn, replace it with a fresh one. When you're removing the mask, don't touch the front of it with your hands. Remove it by the loops, lifting upward from your chin. While still holding it by the loops, place it in a trash can. To be extra safe, wash your hands afterward.

Cloth masks

Handmade cloth masks can be tailor-made to fit a person's face, which is ideal but not always the case. Be sure to adjust the mask and the loops or straps so it fits your face with no gaps. Effective cloth masks have multiple layers of fabric. You can check if you mask is thick enough by holding it up to the light. If light comes through, it's too thin. Nose wire and braces are also useful in supplementing these masks, as well as straps that wrap around your head and neck instead of just around your ears.

Removal and washing:
Wash your hands both before and after removing the mask. Remove it by the ear loops without touching the front of the mask. If your fabric mask is not dirty or wet and you plan to reuse it, the CDC says that it should be stored in a paper or mesh bag. Store it and take it out by holding onto the loops, not the fabric itself. Wet or dirty masks should be stored in a plastic, sealable bag until they can be washed.

A good rule of thumb according to the World Health Organization is to wear a new or freshly washed mask every day. If it gets dirty or wet, replace it immediately. Its website also says that you should place dirty masks directly into the washing machine when possible, and they should be washed in hot water with soap or detergent. Dry the mask in direct sunlight or on a warm setting in the dryer.

Masks that meet a standard

Tested, more secure masks can be harder to come by, but they can be quite effective as long as you ensure you don't purchase some of the many counterfeits on the market. These masks can't be safely layered with other masks. People with facial hair other than a soul patch and some smaller mustaches cannot safely wear this kind of mask.

Removal and disposal:
Remove the masks by the straps without touching the front. Each manufacturer usually has its own set of instructions when it comes to correctly disposing of the masks.


Genuine respirators need to meet an international standard, like KN95s. There are also masks with a special quality requirement by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, like N95s. According to the new CDC updates, the majority of the respirators in the U.S. are fake and don't meet the necessary requirements, so make sure to check for the correct symbols when you buy KN95s.

Respirators tend to be more expensive than masks, but N95s filter out 95% of particles in the air when they fit properly. They seal to the face, which can make them safer but a bit more difficult to breathe through. The straps should go around the head; and like the more quality masks, they can't be layered with other masks or worn with most facial hair.

Follow manufacturing instructions to properly wear a respirator and test it to make sure it fits properly. One of the biggest issues with the respirators often provided for schoolchildren in Utah is that they are usually made for adults, according to Dr. Andrew Pavia, an Intermountain pediatric infectious disease doctor who noted this fact in a recent virtual conference.

Removal and disposal:
Respirators should be replaced if you accidentally touch the inside of it instead of holding it by the straps, if it comes into contact with bodily fluid or a sick person, or if it's visibly dirty or damaged. Otherwise, it should be carefully removed by the straps and placed in a clearly labeled plastic bag. These bags should be disposed of or cleaned regularly.



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