Feature Article: Is Your Family Putting On and Taking Off Their Masks Safely?

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Parents PACK

Amid the uncertainties surrounding COVID-19, one thing is certain: Masks, along with social distancing and handwashing, are necessary in our defense against the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Masks help prevent viral particles from spreading through respiratory droplets when a person talks, coughs or sneezes. When worn over the mouth and nose, masks have been shown to be effective in slowing the spread of the virus.

Since not everyone with COVID-19 has symptoms, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that anyone 2 years of age and older wear a mask.

While many of us have become accustomed to wearing masks, not everyone may be aware of the best way to put on and take off a mask to prevent accidental exposure to germs that accumulate on the mask.

Steps for putting on your mask

When putting on your mask, keeping it clean and ensuring a snug fit should be the focus:

  1. Wash your hands with soap and water or apply hand sanitizer that contains at least 70% alcohol before touching the mask. Be sure to rub your hands until the hand sanitizer evaporates.
  2. Ensure that the mask covers both your nose and mouth and is secure under your chin without any gaps on the sides. Masks should have a metal strip at the nose, so you can adjust the shape to ensure that the mask is snug and air does not escape from the top when you are breathing.
  3. Make sure you can breathe and talk easily with the mask in place.

Try not to touch the mask while you are wearing it. If you do touch the mask, either wash your hands with soap and water or use hand sanitizer to disinfect your hands. It is important that children are taught not to touch the mask as they get used to wearing it.

Steps for removing your mask

How you take off your mask is probably even more important than how you put it on because of the chance of inadvertently exposing your eyes, nose or mouth to germs:

  1. Handle the ear loops or the tie behind your head when removing the mask to avoid touching any germs that are on the mask itself.
  2. Loosen the band around the ears or untie the band behind your head:
  • If you will be discarding the mask: Fold the outside corners of the mask together so that the part that was facing “the world” is on the inside. That helps keep any virus particles that could be on the mask away from your hands.
  • If you will be using the mask again: Sometimes you need to take off your mask for a short time and then use it again, like if you are eating out at a restaurant. In these cases, fold the outside corners of the mask together so that the part that was touching your face is on the inside. That way, when you put the mask on again, the “inside” of your mask will not have touched any surface that could be contaminated with the virus. While you are not wearing the mask, keep it in a place where it will not be disturbed, and preferably where it will not spread the virus if it is contaminated. For example, place it on a disposable napkin or paper set off to the side.
  • Putting the used mask back on: Remember that the mask should be treated as if it is contaminated. Therefore, touch the mask as little as possible when putting it back on, and try not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth. Wash or sanitize your hands after putting the mask back on, and treat the surface where the mask was stored as if it, too, is contaminated.
  1. Once you are home, remove the mask and place it in the trash or laundry receptacle. Do not lay it on random surfaces in your house. Wash your hands immediately before starting to do other things, so that if any virus is on your hands, you do not contaminate high-touch surfaces.

Disposing of or cleaning your mask

If your mask is disposable, place it in a trash receptacle. If you are out and cannot find a trash bin, fold the mask so germs would be inside and store it until you get home or find a trash receptacle.

Non-disposable masks can be laundered in the washing machine or cleaned by hand:

Washing your mask

  • Washing machine: Use laundry detergent and choose the warmest water temperature setting suitable for the material used to make the mask.
  • Washing by hand: Use a bleach solution to disinfect the mask. Remember to always read the label for instructions about how to safely use bleach products:
    • Prepare the “mask cleaning solution” by mixing 4 teaspoons of bleach that contains between 5.25% and 8.25% sodium hypochlorite with 1 quart of room temperature water. For a larger amount of cleaning solution, use 5 tablespoons of bleach mixed in 1 gallon of water.
    • Place the mask in the cleaning solution and soak it for five minutes to kill the germs, then rinse it thoroughly with fresh water to remove any bleach residue. When finished, pour the cleaning solution down the drain and wash your hands thoroughly.

Drying your mask

  • Dryer: Use the highest heat setting possible.
  • Air drying: Lay the mask flat in direct sunlight if possible. Allow it to dry completely before using.

For more information on masks, check out “Why Do We Need to Wear Masks, and What Do We Need to Know about Them?” (September 30 entry) on the Vaccine Makers Project (VMP) website, where you’ll find:

  • Photos showing correct and incorrect ways to wear a mask
  • Information about studies looking at effective masks
  • Links to trusted resources for additional information

Download a PDF version of this article.

Read a Huffington Post interview with CHOP physician, Dr. Susan Coffin, about children and masks.

Last updated: March 9, 2022

Materials in this section are updated as new information and vaccines become available. The Vaccine Education Center staff regularly reviews materials for accuracy.

You should not consider the information in this site to be specific, professional medical advice for your personal health or for your family's personal health. You should not use it to replace any relationship with a physician or other qualified healthcare professional. For medical concerns, including decisions about vaccinations, medications and other treatments, you should always consult your physician or, in serious cases, seek immediate assistance from emergency personnel.