Unmasking Masks:

Top 5 Mask Tips

Strategies to help make this unexpected “accessory” work for you.




Mask Filtration Demystified

Many people have been wondering what the point of wearing a mask is if it is unable to filter out the tiny size of a virus. That is a good question. When a scientist or healthcare provider enters into an environment where they will come in close contact with known and dangerous pathogens, it is appropriate for them to take the highest levels of precautions (and filtration) so that they limit their exposure and don’t carry that pathogen out with them into the world.

In most settings, however, pathogens aren’t transmitted as the malicious free particles floating about that we imagine. For example, viral respiratory infections are commonly transmitted via droplet spread. I.e. the virus is spread through very small drops of things like saliva and snot. This is the reason why we always see recommendations to “cover your cough.” Besides the obvious “ick” factor, this is why sneezing with abandon is simply not done. Droplets are obviously spread with the loud “achoooo!” of the common cold, but also may be shared via less-obvious means such as talking and laughing.

Non-medical masks, such as the now popular DIY cloth masks can be helpful to reduce the droplets that we unintentionally share with the world. Rather than going out into our immediate environment unchecked, at least some of them are stopped by the fabric covering our nose and mouth. Also, when interacting with someone else, a number of their would-be shared droplets may be trapped on the outside of our protective mask… rather than going directly to our vulnerable mucous membranes of the nose and mouth.  

Mask-Wearing Tips and Tricks

So now you have a cloth mask and are wearing it in public settings, but are having some struggles. Here are some strategies to manage common problems you may encounter. 



Since breathing freely is so important to our survival, it is hardly surprising that wearing a mask that impedes breathing could provoke a feeling of panic. Additionally, many people experience a feeling of claustrophobia in confined spaces. Mask fit, even in non-medical cloth masks, is key for both efficacy and comfort. When a mask is made of material that is too stretchy or clingy, it can pull against your nose and mouth, resulting in a stifling sensation. If the mask was designed for someone with a different face shape, it could be bunching in unintended ways that hamper breathing. While adequate layering and materials can be important for filtration efficacy, there could be too may layers (or improper materials used) if it is also blocking your air supply. Consider a mask that is specifically shaped for the nose and chin, without pulling or bunching. If you have underlying respiratory conditions that make breathing through a mask difficult, please discuss this with your healthcare practitioner (we can help manage your symptoms and discuss options!). While wearing the mask could be one trigger of anxiety, there are many potential aggravating factors and triggers right now. If you are experiencing increased anxiety or panic, please reach out to your support systems and healthcare practitioners. We are here to help (and you are not struggling with this alone, even if things can feel pretty isolating right now). 


Fogging Glasses

If your mask is continually making your glasses fog, that can be an indicator that it is not sitting securely on your face. When your mask is not secure at the edges (i.e. over the bridge of your nose, across your cheeks and under your chin) your breath often escapes out the sides (and right into your glasses) rather than passing out and being filtered through the mask. Try wearing a mask that has a piece of metal at the bridge of the nose, so that you can adjust the fit to be more snug at your nose and cheeks. Also consider adjusting your glasses so that they don’t slip down onto your mask. (*It is best practice to not touch your face… or things on your face, such as your glasses. The less adjustment you need to make during the day, the better!)


Skin Irritation

When your mask fits securely, or if you’re an essential healthcare worker wearing a respirator or surgical mask, you may experience skin irritation and divots from wearing a mask for an extended period. Be sure to wash cloth masks after each use. You don’t want to put the same exhaled breath, sweat and contaminants on your face day after day. In the times of COVID-19, you should also consider all outward-facing surfaces of the mask as potentially contaminated, remove it via the ear straps, avoid touching the surfaces, and put it into the wash after use. Gently wash your face after removing masks. Use moisturizer and skin-protectants as needed before you put on your mask. If you’re experiencing a new rash or flare of a skin condition, such acne as eczema, talk to your healthcare practitioner. Stress (such as life during a pandemic) and skin irritants can both be aggravating factors for underlying conditions. 


Ear Pulling

Too-tight elastic straps can pull on your ears, resulting in discomfort, headaches, and looking like a distraught elf. Try a thinner elastic for your masks. Alternately, use a hair tie or string to bridge the elastic ends behind your head, and prevent them from pulling on your ears. Tie-on masks can be a good solution for some people. Whichever option you use, be sure it is something that you can put on without needing frequent adjustment. Part of avoiding touching your face (without first washing your hands) is avoiding touching and adjusting your mask. 



Incorporating something new into your routine, especially something on your face, can feel awkward. The more you do it, the more routine and casual it feels. You’ll start to notice other people doing the same thing and even have the chance to appreciate some unique DIY masks. This is a public health effort, but it is also a statement of solidarity in “these uncertain times.” There’s a lot that we do not know right now. There’s a lot to be frustrated about. While trying situations reveal flaws and failings, they also reveal hope and ingenuity in the face of adversity.