Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has issued an order requiring Angelenos to wear face coverings outside of their homes. While they are likely to be a part of our daily dress for the foreseeable future, there remain questions about how to make the best and most effective use of a face covering.
“I’ve seen people wearing them around their neck and pulling them up. That is problematic,” says Annabelle de St. Maurice, MD, an infectious diseases specialist and director of UCLA’s Pediatric Infection Control and Antibiotic Stewardship Programs. “The challenge is, if you’re touching the front of the mask frequently, that’s likely to be the most contaminated part, and there is greater risk of contaminating your nose and eyes in that process.”
Rule No. 1, Dr. de St. Maurice says, is that after donning a mask, try to avoid adjusting it or pulling it up and down. Remove it from the back of the head or by the elastic ear loops. Make sure the mask fits well, covers the nose and mouth, that there are no gaps around the face and that it allows comfortable breathing.
Wearing a mask correctly probably is more important than the type of mask one selects, Dr. de St. Maurice says. However, if making one’s own or buying a cloth mask, look for one with multiple layers of fabric. A mask with a high thread-count cotton fabric is a good choice because of the tight weave, she says.
It also is important to understand what a face covering can and can’t do, Dr. de St. Maurice says. Its primary purpose is to prevent the spread of large droplets from one’s nose or mouth that may carry the virus. “If you generate droplets [when you breathe, cough, sneeze, talk or laugh], your mask can prevent you from potentially infecting someone close to you, and vice versa if they are wearing a mask and cough, talk or sneeze,” she says. “What a mask can’t do is be a substitute for physical distancing and proper hand hygiene and staying home when you’re sick. Those are the key tenets in preventing the spread of COVID-19.”
Dr. de St. Maurice says that a mask should be laundered daily with a normal machine washing. Avoid purchasing medical or surgical-procedure masks or N95 respirators; these are critical, high-demand masks that should be reserved for health care professionals who come into direct contact with COVID-19 patients.
Placing a mask or face covering on an older child is fine, but one should not be used on children younger than age 2, or on someone who has difficulty breathing or is incapacitated and unable to remove the mask on their own, Dr. de St. Maurice cautions.
Finally, one might wish to consider adding a lightweight, plastic face shield. No public health organizations currently are recommending face shields, but that could change in the future as more is learned about viral transmission. “As we find out more about this virus, they may be option. If you can tolerate a shield along with your mask, it does provide an extra layer of protection,” Dr. de St. Maurice says.