Sadie Dalzell wears a mask with the original state of Maine flag design on the Eastern Promenade in Portland on Saturday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Part of an occasional series answering readers’ questions about Maine

Face masks have easily become the most iconic fashion accessory of 2020.

And with coronavirus cases rising to record numbers every day, health officials warning us about the dangers of Thanksgiving gatherings and widespread availability of vaccinations still months away, the ubiquitous face covering has become more necessary than ever.

It is both the first and last line of defense against COVOD-19. That’s because scientists now say it protects the wearer from inhaling the virus, in addition to preventing infected people from spreading it to others.

In Maine, people are now required to wear them in public settings regardless of physical distance from other people.

But while many people have been using masks for months – and even more are doing so as cases surge – questions and doubts still linger about the safest ways to use them. Here are answers to some of those questions.

Why wear a mask? 

Health experts say mask wearing is the best line of defense against the spread of the coronavirus.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been advising people to wear masks for months because they help prevent people who are infected – whether they know it or not – from spreading the coronavirus to other people. The face coverings capture at least some of the invisible droplets that escape our noses and mouths when we breathe.

And recently, the agency said studies now show a mask also helps protect the person who is wearing it from others nearby who are infected. Essentially, the mask can also keep those droplets out.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that masks aren’t perfect and there are other important steps people should take to reduce risk: keeping your distance from other people, being outdoors or in well-ventilated areas and washing hands.

Do I really need to wash my cloth mask after each use? 

The CDC recommends washing your cloth mask whenever it gets dirty or at least daily.

Dr. Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer at MaineHealth and former Maine CDC director, says she treats her fabric face coverings like socks and underwear.

“I wear them for a day, then they get tossed into the laundry pile,” she said.

If your mask is wet or dirty with sweat, saliva, makeup or other substances, you should keep it in a sealed plastic bag until you can wash it. Wet or dirty masks should be washed as soon as possible to prevent them from becoming moldy.

Linda Healey of Yarmouth wears a mask she made herself as she sits on a bench with her dog Gatsby at the Eastern Promenade in Portland on Saturday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

What is the best way to clean my cloth mask?

It’s OK to toss your mask into the washing machine with your regular laundry as long as you’re using laundry detergent and the appropriate wash settings. If you prefer to wash your masks by hand, you should use laundry detergent or soap and make sure to rinse thoroughly.

Masks can be dried in a warm or hot dryer, by hanging them in direct sunlight or laying them flat to dry completely. Just remember that wet masks can be hard to breathe through and are less effective than dry masks, according to the CDC.

Can disposable masks be worn more than once? 

The CDC says disposable masks should be thrown away after wearing them once. Mills says they should be tossed after being used for a day, which is considered about eight hours. Unlike cloth masks, they can’t be washed.

Is it better to use fabric or disposable masks? 

Either is fine and it may come down to your personal preference. Back in the spring, health officials encouraged people to choose cloth face coverings because disposable ones were in short supply, which is no longer the case.

Studies show that masks with at least two layers of tightly-knit fabric, and especially those with different types of fabric, are best, Mills said. She recommends people avoid fabrics like bandanas and knitted masks since that fabric is not tight enough to prevent viral aerosols from escaping.

People should also avoid any mask with an exhalation valve since they can spread infectious aerosols.

Mills suggests trying different types of masks if you’re uncomfortable wearing one. To find one she liked, she searched for “Maine-made masks” on Etsy and ordered a few different types to try.

“I like the ones with stretchy bands that go around my head. Ear loops are okay, but having the head loops allows me to pull the mask down when I don’t need it so it sits around my neck, and back up again when needed,” she said. “Ones with a toggle are fine too, but probably best for someone without long hair, since I found my hair gets caught in them. I also have a two-layer mask that is more breathable that I use when I’m outdoors exercising.”

What should I do with my mask when I take it off while eating or drinking at a restaurant? 

If you’re taking off your mask to eat or drink outside your home, the CDC recommends placing it in your pocket, purse or a paper bag. You should wash or sanitize your hands after removing your mask. After eating, you can put the mask back on with the same side facing out and wash or sanitize your hands again.

Mills suggests storing your mask in a napkin or paper towel until you’re ready to put it back on.

“It’s best to don and doff (put on and take off) masks while only touching the bands or loops that go around the head or ears. The main thing is not to touch the cloth that covers your nose and mouth, as that contains germs. It would be akin to touching your mouth,” she said.

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