Even though the COVID-19 vaccine is here, face masks will be part of our daily lives a while longer. And like any safety equipment, it's important to check yours regularly to make sure it's still doing its job.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), wearing a face mask is one of the most important things we can do in the fight against COVID-19. Along with social distancing and hand-washing, everyone older than 2 should wear one in public settings (and when around people who don't live with them).
A December 2020 analysis in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that face masks reduce the daily growth rate of reported infections by around 47 percent.
Look for these signs that yours needs to be replaced, and consider this your regular mask checkup.
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1. It's Uncomfortable
It might have been the perfect mask for you in spring 2020, but does it still fit?
Over time, fabric can shrink or stretch, and straps can lose their elasticity. Check if it starts to hurt your ears, doesn't cover your mouth and nose or you are having trouble talking without it slipping down. If it doesn't fit, it isn't safe.
"When we wear a mask for long periods of time, the bands that are on the ears will get loosened, so that nice fit that went across the chin and over the nose isn't as prevalent anymore," says Chris Sulmonte, MHA, project administrator and public health educator at the Bio Containment Unit (BCU) at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
2. It's Torn or Faded
There are many things that improve with age, but a mask is not one of them. Repeated washing and drying can lead to fabric fraying, holes forming and elastic loosening. If it's worn-out, it's not effective.
"I joke that you can treat your masks like you treat your underwear," Sulmonte says. "Wash it consistently and make sure there are no tears or holes in the fabric. Hold the fabric up to the light and notice if the threads are thinning. That's probably a good indication that it's time to replace that mask."
3. You're Having Skin Problems
Face masks can cause or exacerbate a host of skin problems, including allergic rashes, dry skin, acne, rosacea and eczema, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
These problems are caused by friction clogging pores, increased moisture and ingredients in the mask like dyes, rubber and preservatives, Mona Gohara MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New Haven, Connecticut, and clinical professor at Yale Medical School, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Dr. Gohara recommends switching to a cotton mask made without these ingredients and washing your mask "in something you'd be comfortable washing your face in."
She also recommends switching up your skin-care routine under the mask: "A good routine is using a gentle cleanser, good barrier cream and, if needed, a salicylic acid pad for exfoliation," she says, but skip harsh treatments like retinol.
4. You're Using a Disposable Mask
The CDC recommends we leave the medical masks (known as N95 respirators) and surgical masks to health care workers. There are many masks available to the public that look medical but don't offer the same protection, says Scott Weisenberg, MD, an infectious disease specialist at NYU Langone Health in New York City.
Although they may be labeled as "surgical," not all are the same three-ply certified quality used in hospitals, and there's no way to know if you have a good one or a bad one. Some types can also be loose-fitting as they're only adjustable by the ear loops.
A December 2020 study in JAMA Internal Medicine compared a typical procedural mask with different consumer-grade masks and found that many of the cloth masks were as effective or better than a loose-fitting procedural masks.
Disposable masks are also bad for the environment, and it's expensive to replace them.
5. You Haven't Washed It in Weeks
"Common sense would say that the longer you have something on, the more likely it is to get contaminated with bacteria, either from your own mouth or things you are doing in the community to get exposed," Dr. Weisenberg says.
6. You've Been Wearing the Wrong Mask From the Start
With new, more transmissible COVID-19 variants circulating, now is not the time to take any chances with your mask.
"The best mask for you personally is one that fits well, you can wear frequently and has good function," Sulmonte says.
The CDC recommends you choose a mask that has at least two breathable layers, completely covers your nose and mouth and fits snugly against your face with no gaps.
If you're still using that free mask you were given at the grocery store last year or sharing a roommate's (please don't), now is the time to upgrade and protect yourself and others.
For the record, other masks you should skip include: single-layer gaiters, bandanas, fabric that makes it hard to breathe (like vinyl or leather) and masks with vents. And face shields should only be worn in combination with a mask (never alone), to provide eye protection and an extra barrier to keep you from touching your face.
7. You Aren't Wearing One at All
Finally, remember that the best kind of mask is any mask, and the worst kind is no mask.
"The most common mistake is probably choosing not to wear a mask and thinking that you won't be infected or spread this virus," Dr. Weisenberg says. "Masks reduce the likelihood of somebody spreading it to other people," he says, but there is certainly enough evidence that wearing a mask reduces your chances of getting sick, too.
Read more stories to help you navigate the novel coronavirus pandemic:
Is This an Emergency?
- JAMA Internal Medicine: "Evaluation of Cloth Masks and Modified Procedure Masks as Personal Protective Equipment for the Public During the COVID-19 Pandemic"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Considerations for Wearing Mask"
- American Academy of Dermatologists: "9 Ways to Prevent Face Mask Problems"
- World Health Organization: "Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public"
- Aerosol Science and Equipment: "Efficacy of Face Masks, Neck Gaiters and Face Shields for Reducing the Expulsion of Simulated Cough-Generated Aerosols"
- Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: "Face masks considerably reduce COVID-19 cases in Germany"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "How to Wash and Store Masks"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Emerging SARS-CoV-2 Variants"