Avoid making these mistakes when wearing a face mask in public—doing so ensures you're doing your part to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Wearing a mask whenever you leave your home isn't just helpful in stopping the spread of the coronavirus—in some places, it's a requirement. "While there may be some protection from contracting the coronavirus by wearing cloth masks, the biggest benefit is when the mask is worn by someone with the virus," says Jabraan Pasha, MD, the Internal Medicine Associate Program Director at the University of Oklahoma School of Community Medicine. "When the community embraces wearing masks, it reduces the risk of those with the virus (symptomatic and asymptomatic) from spreading it to others. Countries like Japan and South Korea possibly had less community spread because of universal mask use."

homemade protective masks coronavirus
Credit: Getty / Janna Danilova

The reason for this? "After someone is exposed to COVID-19, it can take anywhere from 2-14 days to develop symptoms," says Amy Summers, a BSN, RN, CNOR. "Some infected people may never develop symptoms. However, you may still be contagious before you start showing symptoms, so that is why wearing masks is important." However, if you aren't actually wearing, removing, and washing your mask correctly, you could be putting yourself (and others) at greater risk.  Not sure if you're handling yours properly? We asked Summers and Dr. Pasha to identify the most common mask mistakes—and here's what they had to share.

Your cloth masks don't have multiple layers.

Whether your mask is store-bought or homemade, Dr. Pasha says that cloth masks should always have multiple layers. "It is also important that they cover your nose and mouth," he says. "The CDC provides information on how to make your own masks, including sewing patterns and instructions, as well as no-sew mask instructions."

You're not adjusting it when you put it on.

To avoid the risk of cross-contamination, Dr. Pasha recommends adjusting your mask to fit your face as soon as you put it on. "When putting on your mask, make sure it is comfortable and secure, as to reduce the need for frequent adjustments," he says.

You're taking it off the wrong way.

If you're removing your mask from the front, Dr. Pasha says you're doing it wrong. "When removing your mask, minimize the touching of your face by only using the straps or ear hooks for removal," he says.

You're not washing your hands after removal.

Just as you would after touching any other surface, you should always wash your hands after taking off your mask. "Wash your hands with soap and water immediately after removal," Dr. Pasha advises.

You're not washing it enough.

If your mask is disposable, Summers says that it should be thrown out as soon as you're done wearing it. However, if it's a cloth style, Dr. Pasha suggests washing it after every use to ensure it stays virus-free. "Masks should be cleaned regularly and can be done in the washing machine or hand-washed with laundry detergent and water," he says.

You're wearing them as a substitute for safer practices.

Make no mistake about it: Dr. Pasha says masks are no replacement for good hand-washing habits or social distancing. "Cloth masks are unlikely to prevent infection if you have prolonged contact with someone with coronavirus," he says. "Social distancing remains our most effective tool for reducing the spread."

Comments (2)

Martha Stewart Member
May 12, 2020
Two things. 1. You write "If your mask is disposable, Summers says that it should be thrown out as soon as you're done wearing it." As a very recently retired nurse who is closely following what is happening on my unit (now a COVID unit) and at local hospitals this comment made me CRINGE! The nurses ARE BEING FORCED TO REUSE THEIR DISPOSABLE MASKS MULTIPLE TIMES! And gowns that, under any other circumstances, would be thrown in the laundry after each encounter with a patient. They call it "conservation of personal protective equipment". Brown paper bags with the nurses' names on them hang in the break room so masks can be stored and reused. Masks that, under any other circumstances, would be thrown in the garbage after each encounter. So, IF YOU HAVE THE LUXURY OF THROWING AWAY DISPOSABLE MASKS, please don't! IF YOU HAVE A SUPPLY OF DISPOSABLE MASKS, please consider donating them to your local hospital or nursing home. (I will add that RNs in some hospitals are asking for hospital-provided scrubs so they aren't potentially taking the virus home to their families on their own scrubs - and are being terminated from their position for doing so!) 2. I contacted a microbiologist after he was interviewed on public radio to ask about other ways to clean a cloth mask. For essential workers who only have one mask washing may not be practical. Ironing a mask with a very hot iron, making sure to get into all the creases, will also sanitize a cloth mask, and takes very little time. Thank you.
Martha Stewart Member
April 22, 2020
When I come into my home, I remove my triple layer cloth mask, touching only the elastic, & then wash it at the same time as I wash my hands. Hang it to dry, dry my hands. It will be ready for my next walk or shopping trip. Hubby is an ER Dr, dghtr is a Critical Care RN.