Face masks and coronavirus: When, how and why to wear them

The do's and don'ts of homemade mask safety. 

Woman with sewing machine wearing a cloth face mask

Workers at the Mathis Brothers mattress factory sew face masks April 1, 2020, in Oklahoma City. The masks, which are being supplied to the University of Oklahoma Medical Center and Norman Regional Hospital, are approved for use by visitors and non-COVID-19 patients. It is also to be worn by health care professionals over their N95 masks for additional protection. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Washington State Department of Health now recommend that the general public wear cloth face coverings in public places where maintaining social distance can be difficult, such as grocery stores, pharmacies or doctor’s offices — whether you work in one or visit one. 

The CDC changed its guidance on cloth face coverings on April 3. Here’s what you should know.

I don’t have coronavirus symptoms. Why should I wear a mask in public?  

Wearing a cloth mask or face covering is not mandatory. Consider it a voluntary act of compassion, says the Washington State Department of Health. Some people who get COVID-19 may not show any symptoms, or they may be contagious before they do. By wearing a cloth face covering in public places, you can protect others from a virus you may be carrying without knowing it. 

If I wear a mask, does that mean I’m safe? 

No. Cloth face coverings are in no way a replacement for other protective measures, and they don't protect anywhere near as well as regular and thorough hand-washing (with soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitizer), not touching your face and staying away from other people as much as possible, according to the Department of Health

Wearing a cloth mask “is not going to work if people are not doing social distancing or washing their hands,” says Lauren Jenks of the Washington State Department of Health. “If people are doing those things, [a cloth face covering] might be a good extra layer of protection.” 

One way your creative neighbors are giving back during COVID-19? By making DIY face masks for local organizations

Can wearing a mask make things more dangerous? 

Experts warn a mask can provide a false sense of security, which could be dangerous. “If people choose to go to public places more frequently because they feel safer with a mask on, this will be counterproductive,” says Jenks. 

Another concern is that while wearing a mask, people will touch their mask or face more often and contaminate their face or hands.

Certain groups of people should also be cautious. The CDC and Department of Health say cloth face coverings should not be placed on children younger than 2 (they may not have the dexterity to remove the mask should it start to restrict their breathing). The CDC also says people who are having trouble breathing or are unable to remove a mask without assistance should not wear one. 

If I want a cloth mask, what kind should it be and where can I get one? 

You probably have the materials you need at home. The Department of Health says a cloth face covering can be any fabric that covers the nose and mouth, including a piece of fabric tied around your head. It can also be a homemade or factory-made cloth mask secured with ties or straps around the head or behind the ears. 

If you can sew and have a sewing machine, the CDC has a handy how-to guide. If you don’t, the CDC also explains how to make no-sew face coverings from a T-shirt and bandana. In this short video, the U.S. surgeon general demonstrates how to make a cloth face covering from a T-shirt, scarf or bandana (plus some rubber bands). 

Wondering which businesses are essential under Washington’s ‘stay-at-home’ order? We answer your questions about the order here

I work in a nonmedical essential business. Is my employer required to give me a mask? 

Employers can recommend that employees cover their faces with cloth, but the state’s departments of Health and Labor & Industries do not require employers to give face masks to employees or make them mandatory in the workplace. 

Does the CDC recommend the use of surgical or N95 masks for the general public? 

No. The CDC recommends face coverings made out of fabric, not surgical masks or N95 respirators. The CDC says it’s critical that those masks are saved for health care workers and medical first responders. The general public does not need this level of protection.

If you have N95 respirators or surgical masks (or other much-needed health care supplies), consider donating them. There are various ways to do so. If you have a large supply, consider a bulk donation. To donate small quantities, you can contact your local emergency management agency or check the Washington State Hospital Association website, which lists whom to contact near or in your city. Labor unions have also developed a website for donations. 

If you live in Seattle, the city has set up an online personal protective equipment donation form to arrange pickup for unused supplies in unopened boxes or sealed packages. If you’ve opened the packaging but have not used the masks, contact the Seattle Mask Brigade. They can pick up your masks anywhere in the greater Seattle area. 

If I make or wear a cloth mask, what should I pay attention to? 

Cloth face coverings should cover both your mouth and nose with multiple layers of fabric, allow for breathing without restriction and fit snugly against your face, according to the CDC. Make sure there are no gaps between your face and the mask.

Making masks: Don’t make masks if you are sick or think you might be getting sick. Even if you feel fine and don’t think you’re getting sick, wash your hands before handling any mask-making materials, sanitize work surfaces and tools with disinfectant and keep materials away from other household members as much as possible, the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries advises

Wearing a mask: Before putting on a mask, make sure to thoroughly clean your hands. Also avoid touching the mask while wearing it. If you do, wash your hands again. Once you have the mask on, leave it there and try not to touch it or adjust it. Replace the mask with a new one if it gets damp.

Removing the mask: Do not touch the front of the mask, only the ear loops, ties or band. Also be careful not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth while taking the mask off, and wash hands immediately after removing.

Cleaning the mask: Wash your cloth face covering after each use, or at least daily. Workers who can’t socially distance themselves can wear a cloth mask all day, but it’s important to wash the mask by the end of the day. You can wash face cloths in the washing machine. Use detergent and hot water and dry on a hot cycle

When daily laundry isn’t an option, how long does it take the virus to die on cloth? And if you wash your cloth face mask by hand in hot soapy water, what are recommended methods to dry them (i.e. without using a clothes dryer)? 

Added April 21 at 12.20 p.m.

As with so many things coronavirus, it’s not entirely clear — yet. Findings from a recent study published in The Lancet Microbe suggest it may take the virus at least a full day to die on cloth. But that life span is influenced by room temperature and humidity, and the study didn’t test cloth masks — just cloth. Another caveat: Being able to detect the virus on a surface does not necessarily tell you what the virus’ transmissibility from that surface is, says Dr. Sudeb Dalai, an infectious disease physician at Palo Alto Medical Foundation and clinical assistant professor at Stanford University School of Medicine.

With these unknowns in mind, if you can’t do daily laundry, your best option is simply to get or make more masks, Dalai and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest, so that you can cycle through clean masks until you can get them into a washer and dryer.

“If that is not an option, washing thoroughly by hand is a better option than not washing at all,” a CDC spokesperson told Crosscut.

Washing masks by hand would be “completely fine,” Dalai says. “The most important thing would be [the] use of soap,” Dalai adds. “Any type of soap that creates suds is adequate.” (You want suds because these disrupt the outer fat layer of the virus, breaking it open and neutralizing it, Sudeb explains.)

As for getting the mask dry without a tumble dryer, if you don’t want to let it air dry, the CDC says it might be better to dry the mask with a hairdryer — leaving the mask on a heater could be dangerous.

Are homemade cloth masks more effective than dust/sanding type masks that one can buy at the hardware store?

Added April 21 at 12.20 p.m.

Likely not. An industrial-grade respirator mask might provide filtering benefits, says Dr. Sudeb Dalai. But for the general public, a well-made cloth mask is probably as effective as an industrial-grade respirator mask, according to Dalai, if you consider its primary goal: functioning as a physical barrier from droplets.

Reminder: You’re not wearing the mask to protect yourself, but to protect others from you. “It is not intended to protect the person wearing the cloth face covering, but it is a way to keep the person wearing it from being a source of infection for other people,” a CDC spokesperson said. In other words: a mask is simply a barrier so your cough, spittle or sneeze doesn’t make it to someone else, not the other way around. According to the CDC, for that purpose, a simple cloth mask does the trick (along with social distancing and good hand hygiene).

Unless you’re a health care worker, you don’t really need N95 respirator-level protection, the CDC says. Those are in short supply, and we don’t want to hoard them when health care workers and first responders desperately need them.

Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors