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How to wear a face mask properly


UPDATED: Sat., July 25, 2020

Rayanna Tensley, 26, who is getting her masters in social work at Eastern Washington University, wore an “I can’t breathe” mask during a Black Lives Matter protest in front of City Hall on June 8 in Spokane. When it comes to wearing masks, it’s important to cover the nose, mouth and chin to maximize the effectiveness.  (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Rayanna Tensley, 26, who is getting her masters in social work at Eastern Washington University, wore an “I can’t breathe” mask during a Black Lives Matter protest in front of City Hall on June 8 in Spokane. When it comes to wearing masks, it’s important to cover the nose, mouth and chin to maximize the effectiveness. (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

By now, we’ve all seen masks worn improperly, including those pulled down under the nose. That’s pretty close to wearing no mask at all, said Debbie Brinker, a Spokane nurse educator.

Brinker said she’s seen those examples of masks worn the wrong way while in the grocery store. Improperly wearing a mask does little to offer protection from respiratory droplets that can come from the nose as well as the mouth, added Brinker, a Washington State University College of Nursing assistant professor.

The same concern goes for putting on a mask that has gaps or doesn’t cover all of the following – nose, mouth and chin. Ones that aren’t comfortable might cause fidgeting for adjustments, so you end up with that under-the-nose syndrome.

“If you pull it down below your nose, it’s not any better than someone choosing not to wear a mask,” Brinker said. “That puts other people at risk.”

If a grocery worker gets overheated and decides to pull down a mask down, “It would be better to take a break than to wear the mask under your nose.”

Brinker is former president of the National Association of Critical Care Nurses. Her clinical expertise is in pediatrics as a clinical nurse specialist, nurse manager and staff nurse.

In Spokane County, residents are encouraged to follow the public health directive that asks them to wear masks when they’re in public areas, particularly indoors, and can’t physically distance 6 feet from others. As of Monday, employees at businesses in Washington state must wear face coverings at work under Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start order.

Brinker offers several tips to ensure a mask fits properly:


• Make sure you have a mask that actually conforms to fitting up to the bridge of your nose, so you’ll get a snug and comfortable fit, Brinker said. Today, many people in the community are sewing masks, or there are more options to buy them. That means choices of material and styles. “Some welding masks aren’t as wide, but they still cover the mouth, nose and chin well.”

• Check that the cloth covering is wide enough across the face so the elastic comfortably reaches to tuck behind the ears, or if you’re using cloth ties that the width is there.

• Avoid any gaps. Try on or measure for a homemade pattern that the cloth actually does adequately cover the nose, mouth and just under the chin, Brinker said. “You have to make sure it fits your face so that you don’t have gaps because if you sneeze with gaps, you could have a leak of any droplets that might expose someone. It’s to protect other people, so having a good-fitting mask and one you’ll wear are important.

“Some people’s faces are long and narrow, and so you need to make sure it’s a nice fit along the face and under the chin.”


• Think about comfort, especially if you must wear the mask for longer periods of time. Some people might feel less claustrophobic, and more comfortable, wearing a mask made of cotton material during warm summer months, she said. “If it’s uncomfortable, and someone has to wear it a long time, people will be less compliant with wear.”

“Cotton breathes a little better as warmer weather is here, so you want to think about that, and that you take precautions if you’re wearing a mask in public to stay hydrated.”

• Check the elastic for comfort as well. If the straps cause discomfort, you might feel a constant need to adjust and move the mask.

Fogged-up glassesSee if there’s a gap at the bridge of the nose, Brinker said. This common complaint of fogged-up glasses is caused by a mask being too loose, and then your breath goes up the bridge of the nose, Brinker said. “That’s why the fit is pivotal. As you’re breathing, again make sure it’s tight near the bridge of the nose and sides of the face. Sometimes, the elastic is too loose on the sides.”

Cleanliness• Wash your hands and be aware of how you remove the face covering at home. “Make sure when you take it off, take the ear coverings off first, then turn it inside so you’ve got what was facing outside in, and then wash it. Then don’t touch your face as you’re taking it off, and wash your hands.”

Multiple layers of fabric are better as a barrier for respiratory droplets, Brinker said. She wouldn’t necessarily recommend additional use of nylon material such as from stockings as part of that layering, however.

“My concern about nylon would be the comfort and fit and not have it be too tight on the nose. I’d worry about comfort. Follow the CDC guidelines, and you can find things posted on how to make a mask. We do have a lot of people making masks in the community.”

She also acknowledges that in some types of masks, people can feel almost claustrophobic wearing it for a long time. “If you have any trouble breathing, take it off because someone could pass out.”

Under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mask information, there’s additional guidance for young children as well as elderly people who have issues breathing.

“Don’t put a mask on babies and children who are under 2 years of age, and that’s the case also for seniors who have trouble breathing,” Brinker said. She also wouldn’t recommend masks for people who are developmentally delayed.

But most people should wear face coverings in public settings where there are lots of people, and they should try to stay 6 feet apart from others, she said.

“The big thing is just wear masks for the respect of others, recognizing that although it can be uncomfortable, we are protecting others who are at risk. There are many people who are positive for COVID who don’t have symptoms.”

Treva Lind can be reached at (509) 459-5439 or

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