how often should you use a face mask - how to properly use masks to protect yourself and others

How to Properly Use Masks to Protect Yourself and Others

There’s a lot of controversy surrounding the use of masks in public right now. For many of us in the medical field, though, masks were just a part of work-life that have made their way into out-of-work life, now with more designs and colors. 

Still, using masks so regularly is an adjustment for many of us. We either used masks rarely or not at all before the pandemic, only to be expected to use them almost every moment we’re out in public. 

With that huge transition in mind, here are some reminders on how to use masks correctly, so you can protect yourself and others and educate your family, friends, patients, and your community. 

Are You Using Your Mask Correctly?

Depending on where you work in the medical field, you might be used to wearing masks often for your job. For others of us, using masks daily is a new experience, and there are many habits or techniques we might subconsciously use that put ourselves at risk.

Putting Masks On & Taking Masks Off

Remember that hand hygiene is a huge part of standard precautions and infection control procedures. And that definitely applies to mask use. Before and after you put a mask on or off, practice appropriate hand hygiene, whether that’s washing your hands or using hand sanitizer.

Wash or sanitize your hands before you put on the mask to keep your hands from contaminating a clean mask. Practice hand hygiene again directly after the mask is securely on, because of how close your hands came to your face.

When you’re ready to take the mask off, use hand hygiene before taking the mask off. You never know what might be on your hands, and you’re bringing them very close to your face to remove the mask. Be careful to only touch the ties as little as possible.

Once the mask is off and either thrown away or securely stored, use hand hygiene techniques once again. Who knows what’s on the mask now that might have been transferred to your hands when you removed it. 

Wearing Masks Effectively

For those of us not used to wearing masks for eight to 12 hours a day, they might easily irritate our face or make us feel like we can’t catch a breath. It’s sometimes tempting then to pull the mask down from our nose to momentarily hang around our chin or neck. 

There are several risks we take when we move our masks like that. First, a lot of people are tempted to pull the mask down using the front of the mask or by grasping the mask somewhere on the main body (not on the ties or elastics). That potentially contaminates your hands and the bottom part of your face with whatever is on the mask, and it can contaminate the mask itself too with whatever might be on your face or neck.

It also leaves your nose and mouth open and unprotected. Everything the mask could be protecting you from can now easily access your airways, and you’re now breathing out and contaminating the air around you with any virus or bacteria that might be in your airways.

If you must take the mask off, do so properly with the use of appropriate hand hygiene, and only do so when you’re properly socially distanced from other people, like in a break area.

Storing Masks After Use

As we’ve said before, once a mask has been used, treat the mask as contaminated. Think of it like gloves you’ve just used to complete a procedure on or around a potentially infectious source — you wouldn’t take those gloves off and then stuff them in your pocket or purse because it might spread the infectious material onto everything it touches, which you or another person are likely to touch and spread.

The same applies to your mask. Although you can’t see the viruses or bacteria hanging around on the mask’s surfaces, assume they’re there. Your facility will likely have different protocols on how to properly store a used mask for reuse. For example, they might have you store them in a disposable bag. 

The same concept applies when you’re not at work and using personal masks in public. Don’t put a used mask in your purse or pocket, or on any surface, you don’t want to be contaminated. When you do take it off, either store it in a disposable bag that you get rid of afterward, or fold the outside corners together and place it in the washing machine (for reusable masks) or the garbage (for disposable masks). 

Masks are a useful and effective tool to prevent the spread of disease, but only if they’re used correctly. Make the effort to consciously use your masks appropriately, and encourage others to do the same, so we can protect our communities from the spread of disease.