The Biggest Face Mask Mistakes You're Making & How To Fix Them

Exactly what to do about a masked sneeze.

by JR Thorpe

When it comes to mask-wearing, sometimes it feels like you’re operating in a minefield of weird new social expectations (yes, even almost a year into the pandemic). You know masks are a necessity when you’re indoors with people outside your bubble, but should you sneeze into your mask or into a tissue? Do you always wear a mask outside? Is it rude to stay masked at an outdoor gathering, when you’re staying six feet apart from others? But doctors tell Bustle that getting mask mistakes right isn’t just about social graces.

“Like many other respiratory illnesses, such as the cold or the flu, COVID-19 spreads by attaching to small droplets,” Dr. Seema Sarin M.D., head of lifestyle medicine at medical provider EHE Health, tells Bustle. Anything from talking to singing can spread the virus. This is why masks are so necessary — and why you should always err on the side of being impolite.

“While etiquette may drive which fork to use first, nobody dies from using a dinner fork to eat their salad, while improper mask wearing by an asymptomatic COVID-infected person could kill you,” Dr. David Cutler M.D., a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, tells Bustle. He also says that laws will often determine peoples’ mask wearing behavior, but that can be confusing since masking laws differ a lot from place to place. “When people from different localities get together, they may have very different understandings of the law,” he says. (Also, these kinds of inter-city gatherings can spread the virus from one community to another, so consider... not doing that.)

Face masks basics are pretty easy: wear one over your nose and mouth any time you're in close contact with people you don't live with. But there are a lot of subtleties beyond that. Still confused? Here are five common masking mistakes and how to fix them.

Should You Sneeze Into Your Mask?

One highly specific issue that’s come up with mask-wearing is that of sneezing. Do you just… sneeze into the mask, knowing the sneeze droplets are going to stay right up against your face? Do you take it off and sneeze into your elbow or a tissue as if it were the Before Times? “Singing, coughing, sneezing and breathing should be done into the mask,” Dr. Cutler says. But it’s a good idea to double up and use a tissue on top of your mask when you do need a sneeze.

“You produce anywhere from 3,000 to 40,000 droplets when coughing and sneezing, and using a tissue keeps droplets from getting out of your mask,” Dr. Sarin says. Use it on top of your mask when you’re sneezing, the same way you would maskless.

Pay attention to how your mask feels afterwards, too. “If the sneeze is wet, the mask will become wet and its efficacy is reduced and will need to be changed,” Dr. Lalitha Parameswaran M.D, a clinical assistant professor in the division of infectious diseases and immunology at NYU Langone Hospital–Brooklyn tells Bustle. “Carrying spare masks is advised — and don't forget to sanitize your hands after touching that wet mask.” If you sneeze into your elbow while wearing a mask, throw your clothes into the wash as soon as you get home.

Should You Talk With Your Mask On?

If the woman at the grocery store can’t hear you, the worst thing you can do is take your mask off to talk louder. Keep your mask on while talking, Dr. Cutler says. “People without any symptoms of COVID (who are not coughing or sneezing) can also spread the virus,” Dr. Sarin says. “In these situations the virus attaches to respiratory droplets released into the air when someone speaks, sings, laughs, yells, or breathes. Droplets remain in the air and can be inhaled by anyone nearby.”

Even if you’re giving a presentation, for example, it’s better to model good mask-wearing behavior than to potentially risk infecting everyone in the room. If you’re worried about people who need to read your lips, you can buy clear face masks that are accessible for deaf or hard of hearing people.

Should You Wear A Mask Outside?

Dr. Cutler says figuring out outdoor mask behavior can be confusing, because you may feel as if wearing a mask when you’re further than six feet away is a waste of time. But experts say mask-wearing in general is a good idea outdoors.

“Virus particles released into the air outside dissipate better than indoors, so you may not need to wear a mask all the time outside,” Dr. Sarin says. “However, if you are in a crowded area and cannot stay at least six feet from other people, it’s still a good idea to wear a mask.” Even if you think you’re going to be in an untouched wilderness on your run or walk, Dr. Parameswaran still recommends carrying a mask, in case you encounter neighbors or other people outside your bubble.

If you’re at an outdoor event or a walk with others, Dr. Cutler says, it’s best to err on the side of masks, even while you’re socially distancing. “If you, as a guest, are uncomfortable around people without masks, you leave,” he says.

Can You Wear A Scarf Or Balaclava Instead Of A Mask?

In winter, swaddling your face in multiple scarves can keep you warm — but that doesn’t mean you can leave your mask at home. The CDC recommends wearing masks underneath scarves and other winter face coverings, and changing them if they get moist from your breath. The reason for this is that scarves aren’t shown to block droplets the same way masks are; a study published in Science Advances in September found that bandanas, net gaiters, and their ilk offer far less protection than masks.

How Often Should You Change Masks?

Disposable masks need to be used once and then tossed, which is pretty simple, but what about cloth reusable masks? Experts suggest carrying multiple masks when you’re out, just in case you sneeze or the mask gets wet — or, indeed, somebody sneezes on you. Change it whenever that happens. “If it’s a reusable mask, wash it when you get home,” Dr. Sarin says. And remember to sanitize your hands whenever you’re doing a mask change.

“When there is a lot of COVID in the community, and there are vulnerable people who may be exposed, it is better to be safe than sorry,” Dr. Cutler says. Even if it’s annoying or seems like a conversation-stopper, wearing a mask is still a better plan than getting sick — or making others ill.


Dr. David Cutler M.D.

Dr. Lalitha Parameswaran M.D.

Dr. Seema Sarin M.D.