COVID-19 and cloth face masks
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, priority to PPE is reserved 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 face masks helps reduce the spray of droplets from the nose and mouth.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all people wear a cloth face covering or 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 spreads to people within close contact (about 6 feet or 1.8 meters). When someone with the illness coughs or sneezes, 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 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 (1.8 meters) 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
Whether you make or buy masks, follow these recommendations:
- Masks should include at least two layers 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.
- 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 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 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 using laundry detergent and dry it in a hot dryer at least once a day if used that day. If washing by hand, soak it for 5 minutes in a bleach solution of 4 teaspoons (24 mL) per quart of water (1 L) then rinse.
- 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
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, such as at work
- 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 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.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): About cloth face coverings.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): Considerations for wearing cloth face coverings.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): How to make cloth face coverings.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): How to wash cloth face coverings.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): How to wear cloth face coverings.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Strategies to Optimize the Supply of PPE and Equipment.
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
Last reviewed on: 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 07/21/2020.