Given the Covid-19 pandemic, with its variants like Delta and Lamda, RSV rates (respiratory syncytial virus), and cold and flu season, it’s important to know which face masks work best in which settings, how to really clean them and store them, and some advanced strategies for supporting both your own wellness and our collective health.
When it comes to masks, let’s start with the basics. When warranted, it’s important to have plenty of masks in rotation for hygienic purposes, make sure they fit properly, are made with enough layers, and the masks are worn correctly (covering the nose, across the cheekbones without gaps, over the mouth, and below the chin.) Masks are not only recommended to help reduce transmission from droplets and airborne particles, they can help people minimize touching their face and inadvertently introduce viruses into the body through the nose and mouth.
When to Wear a Mask
Rather than relying on mask mandates, which are often slowed down by various factors, it’s wise to mask up while an epidemic or pandemic is active and you’re sharing space indoors with people you don’t live with. In other words, to minimize viral transmission, wearing a mask indoors needs to be a top priority. In contrast, being outside generally doesn’t require a mask unless you’re attending large gatherings (like sporting events and concerts), physically distancing is a challenge (like with a crowded, backyard birthday party), or you’re in a densely populated region where you are passing by multiple people. For example, many people I know wear a mask when they park at a busy beach and walk on the strand, but once they’re at the shore, they take off their mask until they’re ready to head back. Some of this depends on whether you are solo, with members of your household, or are socializing with people outside of your household and what the rates and risks may be. Either way, during a pandemic, I recommend keeping a mask with you and having extras in your bag or car just in case.
Thinking beyond epidemics and global pandemics, if you have any symptoms, associated with any type of contagious, respiratory virus, it’s also wise and courteous to wear a mask and help reduce the spread of that pathogen. In East Asia, wearing a mask when sick has been a common courtesy for decades.
Masks to Stock Up On
Here’s what I stock up on and why…
Keep in mind, this is what works best for me for where I live and what my schedule is generally like. Of course, masks alone cannot be relied on for preventative health and stopping the transmission of viruses. Be sure to pay attention to recommendations made by health agencies and medical experts and take a proactive approach with cultivating a healthy immune system.
- Plenty of multi-layered, well-fitted reusable masks (ideally Made in the USA) to use on their own and combine with other masks –City Threads is one of my favorite brands, especially for kids, because the masks comfortably cover more surface area and don’t need to be adjusted nearly as much as other designs my family has tried. I love that these masks are 100% cotton (making them biodegradable and more eco-friendly than most reusable masks), they support American jobs, and they are built to last. None of the ear straps on the masks I’ve purchased have ever broken (kid-tested) and none of the masks have lost their shape. They’re also machine washable (although I prefer washing them by hand) and they come in over 20 colors. Since billions of masks have been thrown away since the pandemic first began, I highly recommend utilizing reusable masks whenever it’s sensible for your needs. Having said that, if using the 3-ply, disposable face masks work best for your needs, at least look for Made in the USA brands.
- 2-3 N95 and/or surgical masks for rotation (N95 have been proven to be more effective with filtering) -I use these for indoor, public places worn with a clean, reusable mask over it to keep the PPE cleaner and last longer. I also wait at least 3 full days before reusing an N95 or surgical mask to make sure any viruses are dead. People often ask, can you wash medical, face masks like these? Typically, yes. However, like with all masks, the more they’re washed the more the protective fibers break down and the higher the risk of the mask’s structure being compromised, resulting in a suboptimal fit. Medical experts generally recommend discarding N95 and surgical masks after a single use. As a lifelong environmentalist, I prioritize disinfecting and airing out (with occasional washing) so I can get multiple uses out of them. It’s also good to know how to make these masks last longer if there are repeated supply shortages among healthcare workers or the general public.
- 1-2 cotton masks infused with copper -This mineral has been used since at least the Roman Empire as a naturally effective anti-viral. In fact, the Romans stored water in copper vessels to avoid contamination. Copper-infused masks are much easier to wear for long durations than N95 and surgical masks (particularly for those with strained breathing or claustrophobia), but I wouldn’t rely on them (until there’s more data) for prolonged indoor use if there’s a high risk for virus exposure and you can tolerate the heavy-duty masks doubled with a cotton mask instead. Copper Compression is the brand I bought, particularly for my child who doesn’t tolerate N95 masks well. It provides four layers of protection. Most of the time he uses a City Threads mask, while the copper infused mask is reserved for higher risk scenarios.
- Lanyards clipped onto reusable masks -These are ideal for neighborhood walks and quick drop-offs (i.e., when I drop my kiddo off at camp or school and I’m asked to wear a mask while staying in the car or outside of the facility.) By using lanyards, I can easily slip the mask on or off as needed without losing it or touching the mask a whole bunch. Plus, I keep them attached and wash them with the masks. If you’re a parent and you can get your child or children to use lanyards, you can help them avoid putting their masks down on desks, tables, and other surfaces that might pick up unwanted germs. Lanyards are also great to use for travel. Personally, I plan on sticking with road-trips as much as possible for a while.
*I am not affiliated with any of the products mentioned here. Also, if you can buy products directly from the retailers, instead of Amazon, that would be my recommendation.
Holistic Secret: With clean hands, try rubbing a tiny drop of tea tree oil (or any other anti-viral essential oil) under your nose before putting on a mask when headed to indoor, public spaces. Not only can this tip potentially serve as another layer of protection, but aromatherapy is also known to help ease anxiety and relax the mind.
- Always wash and dry a reusable mask before wearing it the first time.
- Avoid cross-contamination. Do not adjust masks by touching the parts of fabric that cover your mouth or nose. Use the ear loops or outer edges of the mask near the sides of your face (with clean hands) to lift the mask up or down.
- Designate masks to each family member and do not share masks with others.
- Wash reusable masks daily, especially if you’ve been coughing or sneezing in them. My only exception to this is if I haven’t been around many people and I have not coughed or sneezed in them, in which case I hang my mask up outside in the sun or give it a quick spritz of a nontoxic hand sanitizer.
- Periodically disinfect masks with hydrogen peroxide after washing them and then rinse thoroughly. I do this after being indoors in public spaces and every couple of weeks for good measure. You’ll see the hydrogen peroxide foaming white, and/or you will hear it fizzing, if it’s loaded with germs. This is extra helpful for people and kids who tend to touch their masks a lot or mindlessly put them down on various surfaces.
- Avoid putting worn masks on any surfaces at home or elsewhere i.e., your desk, kitchen counter, dining room table, nightstand, coffee table, etc.
- Do not store masks in your pocket or purse (paper bags, plastic bags that are open, or containers are best.)
- Hang masks or designate drawers near the front door for clean and dirty masks or keep a small container in the bathroom or laundry room to put dirty masks that need to be washed at the end of the day.
- Wash masks regularly with a nontoxic soap and warm/hot water. Copper infused masks require being soaked in hot water for 5minutes.
- For children and teens at school or camp, pack a baggie that is labeled “Clean Masks” that contains 3 masks and another baggie labeled “Dirty Masks.” Encourage kids to put on a fresh mask after lunch. Color-coding a.m. and p.m. masks can also be helpful. For example, have your child wear a blue mask in the morning and a green mask after they finish lunch.
- Clean up after returning from an indoor, public space. For example, after returning to my car from a medical office or grocery store and using a natural hand sanitizer, I put my N95 or surgical mask, as well as the reusable mask that went over it, into 2 separate, large Ziplock bags (that I keep open, not zipped up.) I make sure the straps of the N95 or surgical mask do not touch the inside of the mask once placed in the bag. Then I use a natural hand sanitizer, followed by biodegradable wipes to clean my face, neck, and ears. I put the used wipes in a separate, paper bag or container to throw out with the trash. Not only is this a good hygiene practice; it’s helpful with avoiding mask-related acne. Once I’m home, I either leave the used, N95 mask or surgical mask in the car where they can be in the sun and heat or I hang them outside in the sun (depending on how soon I need to use them again.) Of course, I wash the cloth mask before using it again.
- Avoid storing damp masks (from water, sweat, or sanitizers) in closed bags or small areas with poor air circulation to avoid mildew or other unwanted pathogens.
- When wearing a lanyard around your neck and the mask isn’t being worn over your face, fold the mask closed against your chest to keep the inside part cleaner.
Holistic Secret: Wearing a mask to avoid the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and any variants, like Delta, is incredibly important. Additionally, wearing masks when a household member has any early cold or flu virus symptoms may be an effective way to keep other family members and community members from getting sick. After all, viruses depend on hosts. If they can’t find enough hosts, they can’t keep replicating (or mutating.)
Lessons to Learn
There is a lot of collective hope that this pandemic will end soon and then some semblance of “normalcy” will return. However, as a Holistic Health Coach and research nerd who’s been warning people about pandemics for over fifteen years, I think it is critical we learn the lessons that are presented here. After all, according to the World Health Organization, up to 650,000 deaths each year are associated with respiratory diseases from influenza alone. How many of those could we help prevent? Additionally, with population density, global travel, and animal agriculture being what it is (think factory farms), we could face additional pandemics if we don’t take common sense precautions, like wearing a mask when warranted, more seriously. Instituting paid sick-leave for all workers and providing universal healthcare are other significant pieces of the puzzle here. Ensuring that everyone has access to a holistic, sustainable diet and lifestyle that’s deeply connected to nature is also a powerful way to put the odds in our favor.
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