If You Wear Your Mask Like This, You're Not Getting "Maximal Protection"

Luckily, there's a simple fix for this face mask mix-up.

As new, highly transmissible strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus rise to prominence, experts are urging the public to double down on their mask wearing. Literally. Many medical professionals, including White House chief COVID adviser Anthony Fauci, MD, now advocate for wearing not one face mask but two, creating a second physical barrier between you and rogue respiratory droplets or aerosols. But if you choose to layer masks, researchers warn that it matters how you layer them. One recent study published in the journal Cell found that in order to achieve "maximal protection" with a surgical mask and cloth mask pairing, it's essential to put one particular mask on top of the other. Read on for more on how to double-mask the most effective way, and for more essential news on face masks, check out This One Type of Face Mask Is "Unacceptable" Warns the Mayo Clinic.

According to the study, getting the most from your mask-wearing is simple: "Wear a cloth mask tightly on top of a surgical mask where the surgical mask acts as a filter and the cloth mask provides an additional layer of filtration while improving the fit," the study advises. "If the masks fit well," the researchers say this strategy should prevent COVID transmission with over 90 percent efficacy. However, reversing the order of the masks by putting a bulkier cloth mask under a surgical mask could significantly alter the fit, making it less effective.

One of the study's authors, Linsey Marr, PhD, a Virginia Tech engineering professor, recently told The Washington Post that in the absence of a medical-grade mask such as a KN95 or N95, people can get the "best, simplest protection" by wearing a cloth mask layered tightly over a surgical mask.

Looking for other hacks to make your mask more effective? Read on for more tips for getting the most out of your mask-wearing. And for the face coverings to avoid entirely, check out The CDC Warns Against Using These 6 Face Masks.

Tighten the ear loops.

Woman wearing a mask

One of the easiest ways to ensure a proper mask fit is to tighten the ear loops by tying them off, or to buy cloth masks with adjustable loops.

According to the University of Nebraska Medical Center, you should take special care to make sure that this mask modification doesn't create any extra air gaps where aerosols could get in. "Make sure the knot sits behind your ear and doesn't pull the top and bottom of the sides together, as this will open up a space for air to flow in and out," the experts explain. And for more mask guidance, find out why Doing This to Your Mask May Make It Protect You Less, Experts Warn.

Seal your surgical mask.

Woman putting on a surgical face mask. She is applying it to her face and is adjusting the mask for a proper fit. Back lit at sunset.

Another useful hack comes from Sabrina Paseman and Megan Duong, both former employees at Apple who decided to tackle the medical mask shortage. Before going on to patent this innovative face mask which uses the same concept, they initially shared a DIY model that requires just three rubber bands to give a surgical mask "N95-level" efficacy.

Begin by simply creating a chain out of the three rubber bands by linking them together. After putting on your surgical mask, stretch the center rubber band so that it forms a tight seal around your nose and mouth. Then, stretch the remaining two rubber bands around the ears to keep it in place. For the full, step-by-step instructions, you can watch this video. And to find out which mask alternatives to avoid, check out The CDC Says You Should Not Be Wearing One of These Instead of a Face Mask.

Fold any extra material to close gaps.

Man Putting On Face Mask In The City To Prevent Getting Coronavirus, COVID-19

If your face mask has air gaps, folding and sewing those gaps closed can increase the mask's efficacy. In fact, several doctors have posted their own helpful techniques, which you can follow to make simple and safe adjustments. Lou Ann Bruno-Murtha, MD, division chief of infectious diseases at Cambridge Health Alliance in Cambridge, Massachusetts, shared her reaction to one popular hack with Today, which you can watch here. And for more regular COVID news delivered right to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.

Iron your mask to kill extra germs.


It's important to clean your mask regularly, but drying may be even more important. After all, using intensely high heat is one of the best ways to be sure you're killing germs.

However, drying your mask at a COVID-killing 130 degrees Fahrenheit can lead to shrinkage in a typical clothes dryer, and this can pose problems for fit. One way to sidestep this problem is to wash, air dry, and then iron your mask. This high, direct heat is sure to knock out any pathogens, plus it will help pleated masks keep their intended shape. And to learn more about a common face mask care mistake, check out The CDC Says This Is How Often You Need to Wash Your Face Mask.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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