Since the emergence of the deadly coronavirus pandemic, people have been asked to wear face masks in public whenever possible, especially at places where social distancing is not possible, all in a bid to prevent further spread of the virus.
The do’s include wearing a face mask that covers your nose and mouth in public places when you’re around people who don’t live in your household, and washing your hands or using hand sanitizer when you put on and take off your mask.
As for the don’ts, the CDC warns that you shouldn’t touch your mask with your hands while you’re wearing it. There’s also one guideline in particular that people may be struggling with: “Don’t put the face covering around your neck or up on your forehead,” the video states.
Wearing a cloth face covering correctly can help prevent the spread of #COVID19 to others. When you go out on essential trips, follow these “do’s”. If you have a child, remember those under age 2 should not wear a face covering. See https://t.co/lxWMe4NUBD. pic.twitter.com/tIDUpq6mBO
— CDC (@CDCgov) July 21, 2020
This seems to be common when people need to remove their mask to eat, drink, or catch their breath if it’s particularly hot or they’re exercising. It’s become such a go-to look, in fact, that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has tweeted about it, urging people to wear their masks properly:
One is a mask. The other is a chin guard. No one told you to wear a chin guard. Wear a mask. pic.twitter.com/5zrpkzY9KR
— Andrew Cuomo (@NYGovCuomo) July 12, 2020
Why is moving your face mask under your chin or on your forehead so risky?
There are a few reasons why this can be a problem, says infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
“If you’re going to wear a mask, it needs to be worn correctly to be effective,” he explains, meaning it should fit snugly against the sides of your face while allowing you to breathe properly.
The novel coronavirus spreads via respiratory droplets from your mouth or nose when you sneeze, cough, or simply talk—even if you may not have symptoms. When you leave those areas exposed, your mask cannot contain those particles, so “wearing it in a way that excludes your mouth and nose doesn’t serve any purpose,” Dr. Adalja says. Remember: You are wearing a mask to protect others from you.
While your cloth mask isn’t sterile, you still want to try to keep it as clean and free from environmental contaminants as possible—including those that can be on your skin or hands. There’s also the fact that you need to use your hands to move your mask.
“To move it to your forehead or chin involves touching the mask, which could contaminate it,” Dr. Adalja says.
William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, agrees. “You want to touch your mask as little as possible,” he says. While you’re out and about, it’s possible to make contact with a surface that is contaminated with the virus.
So, touching your face mask with unclean hands may actually transfer the virus (if you happen upon it) to the exact area you don’t want it: your face.
That said, touching surfaces is not thought to be the main way COVID-19 spreads, per the CDC, but it’s better to practice caution with a newly discovered virus.
What should you do when you need to remove your mask in public?
If you’re out in public for long periods of time, you’re probably going to want to move your mask at some point to eat, drink, or catch your breath if you are exercising (when you are no longer around others).
When you need to remove your mask, Dr. Adalja recommends first washing your hands with soap or water or using hand sanitizer. Then, remove the mask by the ear loops, making sure not to touch the part that goes over your face.
If you think of it before you leave your home, pack a resealable plastic bag. You can place your mask in there while it’s off your face. If you forget or don’t have any bags handy, your pocket or bag should not be a huge risk, Dr. Schaffner says. “Just put it aside someplace safe, if you can,” he adds.
When you’re ready to put your mask back on, clean your hands again, and place it over your mouth and nose while trying to only touch the ear loops.