The right way to wear and clean your cloth face mask

Cloth face masks must cover the mouth and nose and fit snugly against the side of the face.
maskwear .

Video by: Laura Gasque and Jeff Myers

Editor's Note: The information published in this story is accurate at the time of publication. Always refer to uab.edu/uabunited for UAB's current guidelines and recommendations relating to COVID-19.

As businesses begin to reopen, many cities and states are requiring or encouraging people to wear cloth face masks while in public to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people should wear cloth face coverings, not surgical masks or N95 respirators, in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain, such as grocery stores and pharmacies.

Here is what you need to know about how to properly wear and clean cloth face masks, according to medical experts at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.  

Before you begin to wonder whether or not you need a mask, it is important to understand why it is necessary to wear one while in public.

“The purpose of wearing a cloth face mask is not to prevent you from getting the virus, but to protect other people from getting the virus from you,” said Penni Watts, Ph.D., RN, an assistant professor of nursing at the UAB School of Nursing. “The mask protects others from your germs when you cough or sneeze.”

Watts adds it is also a way to help people avoid touching their faces.

maskwearPhotography: Lexi CoonThe right way to wear a cloth face mask

Before you pick up your mask, make sure you have washed your hands with soap and water or used an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.  

If your mask has straps, tie the top straps first, then the bottom ones. Once it is tied, do not touch the mask again. If your mask has elastic straps, loop those over your ears.

“If you feel it slipping, make sure you wash your hands again before you adjust it,” said Rachael Lee, M.D., an infectious diseases physician at UAB.

It is crucial that the mask covers your nose and your mouth. Do not wear it below your nose.

“I have seen people wearing it below their noses, on their chins, on top of their heads. It needs to completely cover your mucosal area, which is your nose and your mouth,” Lee said.

Before you take your mask off, wash or sanitize your hands. It is also important to remember which side was on the outside.  

“Do not touch the outside of the mask while wearing it, and try to avoid touching the outside when you remove it,” Watts said.

When you take the mask off, you should carefully fold it to protect the side facing your mouth and nose. Then you can put it in a paper bag for storage until you need it again.  

Wash your hands one more time after you put the mask away.

According to the CDC, the mask should:

  • Fit snugly, but comfortably against the side of the face.
  • Be secured with ties or ear loops.
  • Have multiple layers of fabric.
  • Allow for breathing without restriction.
  • Be able to be laundered and machine-dried without damage or change to the shape.

How to clean a cloth mask and how often

The best way to clean a cloth face mask is to wash it in a washing machine. You should wash and dry it at least once a day if possible.  

If you do not have access to a washing machine, you can hand-wash it using soap and water.  

Once it is clean and dry, store the mask in a new paper bag or in a place where it will not be touched or coughed on by other people in your home.  

Who should not wear a mask?

Cloth face masks should not be placed on young children under the age of 2; on anyone who has trouble breathing; or on anyone who is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the cloth face covering without assistance, according to the CDC.  

For more information about the novel coronavirus, visit uab.edu/coronavirus.