When you wear a 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. Wearing a face mask may also protect you from infection.
Wearing face masks helps reduce the spray of respiratory droplets from the nose and mouth. Using face masks in public settings helps reduce the spread of COVID-19.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all people age 2 years and older wear a face mask when they are in a public space. Effective February 2, 2021, masks are required on planes, buses, trains, and other forms of public transportation traveling into, within, or out of the United States and in U.S. transportation hubs such as airports and stations. You should wear a mask:
- In any setting when you are around people who don't live in your household
- Any time you are in other public settings, such as at a store or pharmacy
How Masks Help Protect People From COVID-19
COVID-19 spreads to people within close contact (about 6 feet or 2 meters). When someone with the illness coughs, sneezes, talks, or raises their voice, respiratory droplets spray into the air. You and others can catch the illness if you breathe in these droplets, or if you touch these droplets and then touch your eye, nose, mouth, or face.
Wearing a 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 stay at least 6 feet (2 meters) from other people. Using face masks and practicing physical distancing together further helps prevent COVID-19 from spreading, along with washing your hands often and not touching your face.
About Face Masks
When choosing a face mask, follow these recommendations:
- Masks should have at least two layers.
- Cloth masks should be made of fabric that can be laundered in a washing machine and dryer. Some masks include a pouch where you can insert a filter for added protection. You can also wear a cloth mask on top of a disposable surgical mask (creating a double mask) for extra protection. If you use a KN95-type surgical mask, you should not double mask.
- The face mask should fit snugly over your nose and mouth, and against the sides of your face, and secured under your chin. If you often need to adjust your mask, it does not fit correctly.
- If you wear glasses, look for masks with a nose wire to help prevent fogging. Antifogging sprays may also help.
- Secure the mask to your face using ear loops or ties.
- Make sure you can breathe comfortably through the mask.
- Do not use masks that have a valve or vent, which can allow virus particles to escape.
- You should not choose masks intended for health care workers, such as N-95 respirators (called personal protective equipment, or PPE). Because these may be in short supply, priority to PPE is reserved for health care providers and medical first responders.
- Neck tubes or gaiters should have two layers or be folded over themselves to make two layers of protection.
- In cold weather, scarves, ski masks, and balaclavas should be worn over masks. They cannot be used in place of masks, as most have a loose knit material or openings that allow air to pass through.
- Face shields are not recommended for use in place of face masks at this time.
The CDC provides more detailed information on ways to increase mask protection.
Learn how to properly wear and care for a cloth face mask:
- Wash your hands before placing the mask on your face so that it covers both your nose and mouth. 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 chin or neck, wear it below your nose or mouth or up on your forehead, wear it only on your nose, or dangle it from one ear. This makes the mask useless.
- If your mask becomes wet, you should change it. It's helpful to have a spare with you if you are outside in the rain or snow. Store wet masks in a plastic bag until you can launder them.
- 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 cloth masks with your regular laundry using laundry detergent and dry them in a warm or hot dryer at least once a day if used that day. If washing by hand, wash in tap water using laundry soap. Rinse well and air dry.
- 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 without help
For some people, or in some situations, wearing a face mask may be difficult. Examples include:
- People with intellectual or developmental disabilities
- Younger children
- Being in a situation where the mask may get wet, such as at a pool or out in the rain
- When doing intensive activities, such as running, where a mask makes breathing difficult
- When wearing a mask may cause a safety hazard or increase the risk of heat-related illness
- When talking to people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing who rely on lipreading for communication
In these types of situations, staying at least 6 feet away (2 meters) from others is particularly important. Being outside can also help. There may be other ways to adapt as well, for example, some face masks are made with a piece of clear plastic so the wearer's lips can be seen. You can also talk with your health care provider to discuss other ways to adapt to the situation.
COVID-19 - face coverings; Coronavirus - face masks
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. COVID-19: Guidance for wearing masks. www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/cloth-face-cover-guidance.html. Updated February 10, 2021. Accessed February 11, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. COVID-19: How to store and wash masks. www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/how-to-wash-cloth-face-coverings.html. Updated October 28, 2020. Accessed February 11, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. COVID-19: How to wear masks. www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/how-to-wear-cloth-face-coverings.html. Updated January 30, 2021. Accessed February 11, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. COVID-19: Improve the fit and filtration of your mask to reduce the spread of COVID-19. www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/mask-fit-and-filtration.html. Updated February 10, 2021. Accessed February 11, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. COVID-19: Optimizing Supply of PPE and Other Equipment during shortages. www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/ppe-strategy/index.html. Updated July 16, 2020. Accessed February 11, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. COVID-19: Scientific Brief: Community Use of Cloth Masks to Control the Spread of SARS-CoV-2. www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/more/masking-science-sars-cov2.html. Updated November 20, 2020. Accessed February 11, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. COVID-19: Use masks to slow the spread of COVID-19. www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/diy-cloth-face-coverings.html. February 10, 2021. Accessed February 11, 2021.
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 May 2020. www.fda.gov/media/136449/download. Accessed February 11, 2021.
Review Date 2/7/2021
Updated 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.