Now that most public health officials appear to be unanimous in their support for wearing face masks and many governments across Canada have mandated their use indoors, there are still a number of lingering questions about the safest way to wear and maintain them.
With people wearing so many different types of face coverings in different ways and at different times, there remains some understandable confusion about this new staple in our daily lives.
In a bid to provide some clarity, CTVNews.ca has rounded up some commonly asked questions regarding face masks as well as what the experts have to say about them.
WHAT KIND OF MASK DO I NEED?
While N95 respirators have been mostly reserved for health-care workers and anyone else who may be at a higher risk of exposure to the coronavirus due to their profession, public health officials have encouraged the use of homemade fabric masks for the rest of the public.
According to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), homemade masks that are made out of two layers of tightly woven material, such as cotton or linen, and include a filter are the most effective at preventing the spread of the virus.
The material for the mask should also be large enough to completely and comfortably cover the nose and mouth without gaping, the health agency said.
Dasantila Golemi-Kotra, a York University professor specializing in molecular biology, recommended cotton as the best material for a fabric mask. She said a higher thread count will also allow the mask to do a better job of filtering out microorganisms than one with a lower thread count.
“As the thread count in cotton fabric goes up, the pore size of the fabric goes down,” Golemi-Kotra told CTVNews.ca in May. “This prevents the filtration of smaller particles including [COVID-19] virus particles.”
In June, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued guidance on the proper use of face masks and advised that knitted cotton, such as that found in a T-shirt, or polypropylene are better than nylon and looser-fitting cotton, such as that found in a handkerchief.
Filters can be made out of paper towel or a coffee filter and put inside a sewn-in pocket on the mask, according to PHAC, which offers a step-by-step guide on how to make a homemade mask.
WHAT IS THE SAFEST WAY TO PUT ON AND TAKE OFF A MASK?
Infectious disease specialist Dr. Abdu Sharkawy said it’s important for people to wash their hands thoroughly before touching their face masks. He told CTV News Channel in May they should then grab the mask by the elastic ear loops and place them around the ears.
If the mask has a nose clip, Sharkawy said the wearer can close it to improve the seal around their nose.
PHAC advised adjusting the mask to ensure it completely covers the user’s nose and mouth without any gaps and washing hands again immediately after.
To remove the mask, both Sharkawy and PHAC recommend people wash their hands and touch only the elastic ear loops or ties to take it off. The masks should then be placed in a bag for future cleaning.
Sharkawy stressed that wearers should be careful to only touch the ties and not the actual mask itself when removing it.
IS IT OK TO TUCK A MASK UNDER YOUR CHIN WHEN NOT USING IT?
Although it’s become common to see people dangling their face masks from their ear loops or wearing them tucked under their chin with their mouth and nose exposed, PHAC advises against it.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) specifically recommends that people avoid wearing face masks around their necks or pushed up on their foreheads.
Most public health agencies also ask wearers to avoid touching their masks as much as possible while they’re wearing them, which includes adjusting the position of them on their face.
Sharkawy said there are a number of reasons why people shouldn’t wear their masks around their chin. Firstly, because it could stretch out the mask and make it difficult for it to maintain its shape and therefore its protective seal when it’s placed back over the face.
For men, Sharkawy said there is the possibility that their stubble or facial hair will grate against the fabric of the mask when it’s worn on the chin, which could potentially degrade the protective filter and reduce the mask's effectiveness.
Finally, he said there is always the possibility of contamination of the mask from bacteria on the chin or upper neck.
“Although not high, this is not negligible either,” he explained to CTVNews.ca in an email Tuesday. “For all of these reasons, this practice is not recommended.”
Infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch, however, said the real problem with wearing the mask incorrectly is that it won’t do what it’s intended to do. He said that is especially important when people are in public indoors.
“It has remarkably little effectiveness in those positions,” he told CTVNews.ca during a telephone interview Tuesday. “The whole point of the mask is to prevent an individual from transmitting the infection to others who are in close contact with them. So if it’s on your chin or on your forehead, it doesn’t do anything.”
Bogoch stressed that people should really take care to wear the mask properly, with it covering the wearer’s mouth and nose, in situations where they’re in close proximity to others and indoors.
HOW TO PROPERLY STORE FACE MASKS?
PHAC said single-use disposable masks should be thrown in the garbage immediately after use and the wearer should wash their hands right after.
For reusable masks, the health agency said they’re best stored in a clean paper bag to wash later.
CAN I KEEP MY FACE MASK HANGING FROM MY REAR-VIEW MIRROR?
As tempting as it may be to always have a face mask at the ready by hanging it from your vehicle’s rear-view mirror when it’s not in use, Sharkawy said that’s actually not a good spot for it.
The infectious disease specialist said people should think of their used face masks as a potential small petri dish of disease that should be carefully handled.
“The assumption is that that mask has already been used and if there is any particulate material on there, you’re allowing it to essentially waft through the inside of your vehicle,” he said.
HOW TO CLEAN FACE MASKS AND HOW OFTEN?
According to PHAC, face masks or face coverings should be changed and cleaned if they become damp or soiled. The agency said masks can be put directly in the washing machine, using the hot cycle, and then dried thoroughly afterwards.
Another option, Sharkawy said, is to wash face coverings by hand in the sink. He said the wearer should wear gloves while they wash the covering with hot water and soap.
Golemi-Kotra said people should think of face masks like they think of their hands and wash them regularly and when they return home.
“You want to wash your hands when you go inside – you should do the same thing with your face mask,” she said.
The CDC also recommends washing cloth masks with a bleach solution comprised of five tablespoons of household bleach mixed with approximately 3.8 litres of room temperature water. The agency said people can soak the mask in this solution for about five minutes and then rinse it with cool or room temperature water.