Face coverings, masks, layered cloth, or thin cotton…wear them or not? I’m not going to get into that debate for this blog. For many, the decision’s been made by the powers that be. Here in Phoenix, AZ, and many other states, face coverings have been mandated. As such, there are specific rules and regulations that have been created for wearing masks when we can’t be 6 feet away or physical distancing is not possible. Properly caring for your face covering and practicing ideal mask hygiene is just as important, if not more so, than wearing the mask itself.
However, masks can be removed once safely distanced. The proper maintenance and hygiene of caring for your mask is not always practiced and warrants a little extra attention. What do you do with your mask when you can finally remove it? What do you do with your hands when you have to put it back on? What do you tell your clients about mask hygiene if and when they ask?
The other day, I was on a college campus that required everyone on campus to wear masks in the hallways. Yet, since the classrooms were set up to accommodate for physical distancing, we were allowed to remove them once inside. When I removed mine, I carelessly put it on my desk next to my cell phone, keys, and notebook. Then when I needed to use the restroom, I picked the same mask up that was sitting on the desk (with unwashed hands) and put it back on my face. When I returned from the restroom, I took the mask off and put it in my bag with my books. When the day was over, I put the same mask back on my face, again without washing my hands.
As I left campus and walked to my car wearing my mask, I breathed heavily into the mask that I’d been wearing all day and I had an “ah-ha” moment! All day long I was completely careless and unhygienic with regard to my face covering.
Practicing Healthy Mask Hygiene
I called a colleague about it and we talked about how important it is to be mindful to have good mask hygiene not only due to the COVID-19 pandemic but also because I don’t want to pick up any other disease due to carelessness using my mask!
I hope to raise awareness and convey how important it is to do the following things to minimize bacteria and germs on the mask—The very thing that many municipalities are mandating or that many people are voluntarily donning for protection.
1) Be conscientious of where you put your mask after you take it off. Like I said in my story, I was amazed to acknowledge where my mask ended up when I took it off. Then I started observing where others put theirs. I noticed classmates dropping masks on the floor and picking them up and putting them on their face. These are not judgments, they are observations. It especially undermines the protective benefit of the face covering if we take it off when we get to our cars and place it on the passenger seat where maybe our kids, friends, classmates, and colleagues sit, or our groceries, purses, supplies and laptop bags, etc are usually placed
Also, think about where the mask goes when in fitness facilities when we finally take it off. Many gyms now require a mask while walking to a piece of equipment or machine. Once there, the mask can be removed if the client is safely distanced from other members. I have caught myself putting the mask on a barbell or in my sweat-drenched pocket (just being transparent here)!
After doing some digging and research about the risks of poor mask hygiene, I’m going to start treating my mask like my toothbrush (maybe better)! Would I brush my teeth with a toothbrush that fell on the floor? Would I put my toothbrush into a bag with my books in it (without first putting it into a container)? Would you?
Consider carrying a plastic baggie to place your mask in when not in use, and seal it until you need it again.
2) If your mask isn’t disposable, wash it regularly. In an article put out by Johns Hopkins Medicine, Lisa Lockerd Maragakis, MD, MPH recommends having at least two masks so that you have a fresh mask while the other one is being washed.
3) If the mask is disposable, replace it regularly. When a mask becomes damp or humid, replace it with a new mask. Don’t reuse a single-use mask, discard it after you’re done using it. It can be tempting to reuse a disposable mask to try and save money or for environmental reasons, but the recommendation is not to mess with a dirty mask (whether you can ‘see’ the dirt or not)!
4) When purchasing a new mask (cloth or disposable) make sure the mask fits properly. Some masks fit more snugly than others. Many of the handmade and cloth ones vary in style and size. Obviously heads, faces, chins, and jaw lines vary too. Make sure there isn’t space between the sides of the mask and the cheeks, and that it fits securely over the nose (covering it) and goes down to the chin.
5) Before wearing a new mask (new or disposable) make sure it is intact and there are no holes in it. This is no different than when you inspect groceries at the grocery store to make sure they aren’t overly ripe and rotten or when you buy fitness gear, you make sure it’s not torn or defective. While disposable masks made in factories are subject to quality control, hand made masks may be sewn by volunteers or friends and are making masks with the best of intentions, but without quality control. Give it a once-over with a critical eye before donning it.
6) Wash or sanitize your hands before putting the mask on your face and after removing it. This is very similar to using utensils to eat. Washing or sanitizing your hands is a great habit before eating or putting a spoon full of food into your mouth. The same goes for after eating. It’s a great tool to anchor good mask hygiene with washing habits that already exist, to fully entrench mask hygiene habits.
7) Clasp the elastic or earpiece sides only when putting on and removing the mask. Taking the mask off by touching the cloth part will increase chances of cross-contamination, especially if you were unable to wash or sanitize your hands prior to removing it.
There are mask contraindications to bear in mind as well:
Children under age the age of 2, people with breathing problems, and unconscious or incapacitated people who can’t take one off without help should not wear a mask.
In these cases and all other questionable mask-wearing cases, the best bet is to seek licensed professional medical advice.