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COVID-19 and cloth face masks

Definition

When you wear a cloth face mask in public, it helps protect other people from possible infection with COVID-19. Other people who wear masks help protect you from infection.

Cloth face masks or coverings are not the same as personal protective equipment (PPE) such as surgical masks or N-95 respirators. Because these are currently in short supply, PPE is reserved only for health care providers and medical first responders.

While cloth face masks don't work as well as PPE at protecting against COVID-19, wearing cloth masks is better than not wearing a mask at all.

Alternative Names

COVID 19 - Cloth face coverings; Coronavirus-cloth face masks

Information

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all people wear a cloth face mask when they are in a public space. You should wear a mask:

  • Any time you leave your home to go out in public
  • When you are in a place where physical (social) distancing (6 feet or 1.8 meters or more) is difficult, such as at a grocery store or pharmacy
  • If you live in an area where COVID-19 is spreading within the community

How Masks Help Protect People From COVID-19

COVID-19 is thought to spread to people within close contact (about 6 feet or 1.8 meters). When someone with the illness coughs or sneezes, infected droplets spray into the air. You and others can catch the illness if you breathe in droplets, or if you touch these droplets and then touch your eye, nose, mouth, or face.

Wearing a cloth face mask over your nose and mouth keeps droplets from spraying out into the air when you are speaking, coughing, or sneezing. Wearing a mask also helps keep you from touching your face.

Even if you don't think you have been exposed to COVID-19, you should still wear a face mask when you are out in public. People can have COVID-19 and not have symptoms. Often symptoms don't appear for about 5 days after infection. Some people never have symptoms. So you can have the disease, not know it, and still pass COVID-19 to others.

Keep in mind that wearing a face mask does not replace social distancing. You should still keep social distancing by staying at least 6 feet from other people. Using face masks and practicing social distancing together further helps prevent COVID-19 from spreading, along with washing your hands often and not touching your face.

About Cloth Face Masks

You can make a face mask using home materials made from cotton such as a pillowcase or a t-shirt. The CDC has instructions for how to make a face mask at home.

Whether you make or buy masks, follow these recommendations:

  • Masks should include at least two layers of cotton fabric that can be laundered in a washing machine and dryer. Some masks include a pouch where you can insert a coffee filter for added protection.
  • The face mask should fit snugly over your nose and mouth and against the sides of your face.
  • Secure the mask to your face using ear loops or ties.
  • Make sure you can breathe comfortably through the mask.

Learn how to properly wear and care for a cloth face mask:

  • Wash your hands before placing the mask on your face. Adjust the mask so that there are no gaps.
  • Once you have the mask on, do not touch the mask. If you must touch the mask, wash your hands right away or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
  • Keep the mask on the entire time you are in public. Do not slip the mask down on your neck, below your nose or mouth, or up on your forehead. This makes the mask useless.
  • Once you return home, remove the mask by touching only the ties or ear loops. Do not touch the front of the mask or your eyes, nose, mouth, or face. Wash your hands after removing the mask.
  • Launder the mask and dry it in a hot dryer, or hand wash it using soap, at least once a day if used that day.
  • Do not share masks or touch masks used by other people in your household.

Face masks should not be worn by:

  • Children younger than age 2
  • People with breathing problems
  • Anyone who is unconscious or who is unable to remove the mask on their own

References

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Cloth face coverings: Questions and answers. www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/cloth-face-cover-faq.html. Updated April 4, 2020. Accessed May 14, 2020.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. How to safely wear and take off a cloth face covering. www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/downloads/cloth-face-covering.pdf. Updated April 30, 2020. Accessed May 14, 2020.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Important information about your cloth face coverings. www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/downloads/fs-Important-information-cloth-face-covering.pdf. Updated June 9, 2020. Accessed June 26, 2020.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Strategies to Optimize the Supply of PPE and Equipment. www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/ppe-strategy/index.html. Updated May 5, 2020. Accessed May 14, 2020.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Use of cloth face coverings to help slow the spread of COVID-19. www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/diy-cloth-face-coverings.html. Updated April 13, 2020. Accessed May 14, 2020.

Davies A, Thompson KA, Giri K, Kafatos G, Walker J, Bennett A. Testing the efficacy of homemade masks: would they protect in an influenza pandemic? Disaster Med Public Health Prep. 2013;7(4):413-418. PMID: 24229526 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24229526/.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Enforcement Policy for Face Masks and Respirators During the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Public Health Emergency (Revised) Guidance for Industry and Food and Drug Administration Staff April 2020 www.fda.gov/media/136449/download. Updated April 2020. Accessed May 14, 2020.


Review Date: 5/14/2020
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team. Editorial update 06/26/2020.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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