This Is the One Face Mask People Are Still Wearing Wrong

N95 masks are often being worn incorrectly, preventing them from stopping the spread of COVID-19.

The coronavirus pandemic has turned face masks into an integral part of our lives. Across the country, people are sporting face masks as they walk around in public, because their use has been mandated or recommended to help curb the spread of COVID-19. However, as a relatively new facet of our lives, many people aren't necessarily using face masks correctly. For every person you see properly covering their nose, mouth, and chin with a face mask, you'll see another walking around with the mask hanging off their chin, protecting nothing. But between the different types of face masks—cloth masks, medical masks, disposable masks—experts say the one people are misusing the most is the N95 mask.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), N95 masks should be reserved for health care professionals, because in addition to preventing the wearer from spreading potentially infected droplets, they also protect the wearer from infected particles from others, unlike other masks such as cloth face coverings. This recommendation hasn't stopped people from purchasing and wearing N95 masks. But one of the biggest problems is that the everyday person is not trained to properly wear N95 masks the way that medical workers are, according to Leann Poston, MD, a licensed physician who works as a medical expert for Ikon Health.

"When I got my first N95 mask, I had a formal fitting where they showed me how to do a seal test after choosing a mask that best fit my face shape. You check for leakage of air around the mask as you breathe in and out," she explains. "Sealing the mask correctly means that all air enters and leaves through the filter, not around the mask. A properly sealed mask increases resistance to airflow making it more difficult to breathe. I imagine that many people are not properly sealing their masks because of this increased work of breathing. However, not sealing it correctly decreases its effectiveness and may give the users a false sense of security."

N95 PPE protective mask resting on blue medical scrubs with copy space

A Singapore study published in JAMA Network Open on May 20 backed up Poston's assumptions. The study found that only 12 percent of participants could put on an N95 mask correctly with no prior prompting from the instruction sheet they had previously been given when mailed the mask. The most common mask mistakes made were incorrect strap placements, leaving a visible gap between the mask and skin, and not tightening the nose-clip.

"These findings support ongoing recommendations against the use of N95 masks by the general public during the COVID-19 pandemic," the authors wrote. "N95 mask use by the general public may not translate into effective protection, but instead provide false reassurance."

Inna Husain, MD, section head of the Laryngology Department of Otolaryngology at Rush University Medical Center, says the fit test is one of the most important elements of properly using an N95 mask. She says that how someone wears the mask will change from person to person, just as face shapes do—especially since there are different N95 mask shapes and sizes. Husain says she can fit in a duckbill shaped N95 but not a cup-shaped one, and that it is "quite common to hear of somebody only fitting with one certain shape and one size."

"N95 masks should really be fit by an occupational health expert or someone trained in the fitting process prior to use," she says. "The N95 also works best when worn persistently, as opposed to taking it on and off. It really should only be taken off three to four times before it may no longer be effective. This mask should not be worn routinely for activities like grocery shopping and should be saved for medical professionals in high exposure areas." And for more face masks to avoid, This Is the One Type of Mask You Should Never Wear.

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