To help stem the spread of coronavirus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has officially recommended that individuals wear cloth face coverings in any situation where social distancing measures are difficult to maintain. However, effectively protecting yourself and others from COVID-19 isn't guaranteed by simply just wearing a mask in public. In fact, many people are making a critical mistake with their face protection that could make themselves, and those around them, more susceptible to infection: touching their mask with unwashed hands.
"Your first line of defense against spreading the virus is to wash your hands," says Jay Woody, MD, FACEP, chief medical officer of Intuitive Health and a co-founder of Legacy ER&Urgent Care, who notes that you should be washing your hands before and after every time you touch your mask.
According to Woody, "the highest risk of contamination is the front of the face mask," and removing a mask in a manner that involves your hands touching this particular area will put you at greater risk of being exposed to the coronavirus.
"When this happens, the face mask becomes pointless," he says. Instead, masks should be removed from the ear loops rather than by touching the protective layers that come into contact with your face.
Woody also notes that reusing a disposable face mask can pose a similar contamination risk, especially if you store it on or near any surfaces that might harbor the virus. "Cross-contamination is highly probable when individuals leave their masks in their shopping cart… or leave it in their cars," he says.
To avoid putting yourself and others at risk, when in doubt, wash your hands—or if you're in a pinch, use hand sanitizer—any time you might touch your mask. You should also wash your mask with hot water after each time you wear it in public, and make sure you're storing it in a paper bag between uses to keep bacterial growth to a minimum. And for more ways to protect yourself, make sure you know these 7 Precautions You Must Take Before Wearing a Mask.