Discover more from Not a Doctor
The care and cleaning of masks
And other important ways to protect yourself and others
Welcome to Not a Doctor, the only newsletter about health and science that talks about washing your underwear regularly.
I’m Melody Schreiber, a journalist and the editor of What We Didn’t Expect. I’m not a doctor, or a scientist, or really an expert of any kind. I just like to ask questions and try to find the answers to them.
As promised (a day late, sorry!), today we’re talking about ways you can protect yourself and others from viruses.
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The masked errand-avenger
So! The CDC now recommends wearing cloth masks in public. What does that mean, exactly? Should you wear it to the grocery store, on a walk with friends, while out running? And what kind of mask is best?
Since the mask is intended to keep you from infecting other people, you should wear it in any public place where you’re likely to encounter other people — even if you keep to the recommended six-foot (or more) distance. Which we’re all still doing! Right?!
If, like me, you live near the woods like a hermit, a mask seems less useful if you’re unlikely to encounter anyone on your walk. But if you’re strolling through the city, yes, this advice applies.
And wearing a mask may be even more applicable for joggers and cyclists — although peer-reviewed, published research is thin on this subject.
However, both improper fit and possible contamination can make a mask more dangerous than wearing nothing at all when it comes to keeping you safe from getting the virus.
Here are a few key points to keep in mind while masking up.
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Tips for choosing a mask
Find the thickest material you can still breathe through.
High-thread-count pillowcases and cotton t-shirts (that haven’t been washed a million times and worn down) seemed to help in this 2013 study on flu protections.
It depends upon which kind of material you use, but at least three layers of cloth is probably a good idea.
One quick rule of thumb: if you hold the material up to a light and you can still see the light coming through, it’s probably not thick enough to filter viral particles.
Also: we don’t know enough about what kind of filter materials are safe to put right next to our mouths. Please, please don’t make yourself a human guinea pig by cutting up furnace filters or vacuum cleaner bags, which may have chemicals you shouldn’t be breathing in directly.
However, it’s a good idea to make a flap of some sort so that you can insert a filter later, once we know more about what works best. In the meantime, some people are using paper towels or coffee filters as an added layer; if you do that, make sure to throw them out regularly (definitely before washing them!).
Finally, you should make sure you can actually, you know, breathe through the thing. The last thing you want is to have an asthma attack or make yourself pass out from lack of oxygen.
And please make sure the air you’re breathing is actually coming through the material — not from around the sides (see my next point).
Make sure it fits properly.
Masks should cover your nose and mouth at the same time. This isn’t the time to get skimpy; make sure there’s plenty of fabric to cover most of your face.
There are two particular places to look for fit: the bridge and sides of the nose, and the sides of your face, including under your chin.
Make sure the nose piece covers the bridge of your nose and lays as flat as possible against your skin; you don’t want big gaps along the sides of your nose.
Likewise, make sure the mask is laying as flat as possible against other places on your face, including the under-chin area.
While you can use a bandanna to fashion a mask, simply wearing it bandit-style with a loose flap hanging down over your mouth isn’t a great idea. You want all sides to fit really snugly.
The reason is this: you don’t want the air that you’re sucking in and blowing out to come from the sides accidentally. That means the air isn’t being filtered. Instead, it should be coming directly through the material.
Make your own mask if you want, or buy your own.
If the idea of figuring out how to sew your own mask sounds like a fun way to while the hours away during self-quarantine, awesome! Get to sewing!
But if it sounds like a new form of torture or you simply don’t have the time, there are a ton of Etsy shops right now selling different types of cloth masks.
And you can always post on social media to see whether a friend is able to make you a mask or two — it could be a good way for them to fill time and make a few extra bucks to boot.
If you’re making your own, there are a ton of patterns on the ol’ Google machine.
Here’s a pattern from Johns Hopkins Medicine. Here’s one from Kaiser Permanente (with a bonus video!) And here’s lots of advice from Masks4All, from sewing to no-sewing patterns. (For the pattern below, I recommend doubling or tripling the fabric.)
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Tips for wearing a mask correctly
It is really hard to get used to wearing a mask! In the past, I’ve found myself adjusting them absently, because it’s weird to have something right up against your face.
But in these unusual times, it’s worth learning proper mask etiquette (maskiquette?) if you haven’t already.
The big thing: once you put it on, try not to touch it. You could have germs on your hands that you’ve now spread to the area right in front of your nose and mouth. Or the mask could’ve captured some germs that you’ve now got on your hands.
Here’s a really great post on the nitty-gritty of donning masks and gloves. (I’ll talk about gloves and hands in another update soon!) And the WHO has also issued guidelines for when and how to use masks.
But here are a few important things to remember.
First, wash your hands. (Never touch your mask without clean hands!)
Grab your mask by the ear loops or ties only — not the front of the mask — and make sure you’re putting it on in the right direction (don’t switch between front-facing and mouth-touching sides).
Make sure your nose and mouth are both covered at all times.
Once you’ve put it on with clean hands, don’t touch it again!
Wash your hands again before taking it off.
If it gets damp, change it as soon as possible.
Take it off by the ear loops or ties only.
Immediately chuck it into the wash, or a paper bag for at least a week. (If someone else made the mask for you, ask if it can go in the dryer.)
As one expert put it: think of your mask like underwear. You wouldn’t stash a used pair in your purse or dangle them from your rear-view mirror, right? (Right?!)
Instead, they should be washed after each use, or stored in a paper (not plastic) bag until the virus is no longer infectious. (Okay, the second part less true for underwear.)
This means you’ll probably need a few different masks to rotate in and out as you wash or store them.
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But that’s not all!
Masks — even medical masks — aren’t perfect. Wearing them doesn’t make you invulnerable.
Instead, we can see masks as a reminder that we’re all in this together, and we are all taking small and large steps to keep each other safe.
Physical distancing and good handwashing are still your most effective tools for protecting against the virus and limiting its spread.
Here’s what Craig Spencer, a doctor who survived Ebola and is now working as an ER physician in New York, has to say about masks and other protective gear (the whole thread is helpful):
If you’re very vulnerable, you might also think about wearing eye protection — glasses and sunglasses help a little; or goggles can take this to the next level. The virus can attach to mucous membranes, and that includes eyes — so always, always avoid touching your eyes.
Kindness and understanding are other essential tools for battling this pandemic.
For a while, some people in the United States judged those who were wearing masks because it seemed so strange. Now, we might find ourselves tempted to lash out at those who, for any number of reasons — from asthma to racism — aren’t able to wear cloth masks safely.
“I, a Black man, cannot walk into a store with a bandana covering the greater part of my face if I also expect to walk out of that store,” he wrote. “For me, the fear of being mistaken for an armed robber or assailant is greater than the fear of contracting COVID-19.”
Be careful, too, not to get a false sense of security from wearing a mask. This doesn’t mean we can go hang out with friends now, or stop observing physical distances.
It’s just one of many tools that we can use to try to be a little safer.
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Next week, I’m planning to post an open thread about the role of faith in your life in these times — how your beliefs have or haven’t changed; how you’re practicing your religion given physical distancing; the ways you feel called to minister to others. This is not my area of expertise, so I want to hear from all of you.
In the meantime, if you have any questions, feedback, or tips for not touching my mask, please comment below or email me at email@example.com.
As always, if you know someone who might appreciate this newsletter, please feel free to forward it to them.