Social distancing, hand washing and mask use have saved thousands of Canadian lives. Wearing a mask is a key component to what has worked. It protects us in two ways.

First, we know that people without symptoms may inadvertently spread the virus. Wearing a mask, by controlling the amount of virus bearing droplets that escape when we sneeze, cough, or talk, protects those around us. As well, it may help to limit the ability of any virus-laden droplets to sneak into our noses or mouths.

Masks need to be worn covering the nose and the mouth — not dangling off our face. They need to be worn in any situation where you might be forced into relatively close or prolonged contact with others not living with you. If you are alone in your car for example, you do not need to wear a mask.

The mask should fit snuggly and be comfortable. Surgical, single-use masks are perfectly okay. N-95 masks are not needed for most situations and they can be difficult to wear and breathe through.

Reusable masks need to be made of the right material. For example, leather isn’t permeable to air so it’s not the right material to use to make a protective mask. Canadian government guidelines suggest that cloth masks should be made of at least two layers of tightly-woven fabric, such as cotton or linen. In tests, those made with a combination of fabrics — one tightly woven cotton sheet with two layers of chiffon (90 per cent polyester and 10 per cent spandex) — filtered out 80 to 99 per cent of aerosol particles, making them nearly as effective as an N95 mask.

Substituting chiffon with natural silk or flannel produced similar results, as did a cotton quilt with cotton-polyester batting. There are numerous reputable sites with instructions on how to make your own mask or what to look for in buying one.

You can wash a reusable mask using regular detergent. Don’t use bleach. While it may be more effective at killing the virus, bleach will also harm the material making it less effective as a protective barrier. The dryer is more than adequate to kill any residual virus but if you wanted an extra level of protection you could iron the mask as well, though it’s not really necessary.

I wouldn’t suggest hanging the mask from your rear view mirror in the car as the heat and ultraviolet light may damage it without adding any additional virus-killing benefit. I would keep an extra mask in your car and your purse so that you don’t have to worry about forgetting to take one with.

Put the mask on and take it off using the ear loops. Wash your hands after you put it on and after you take it off. If you’re not wearing the mask, put it on a surface that you won’t be eating off of or using. You could put it on a paper towel for example that you can then discard.

At the end of the day, the most important thing about the mask isn’t its colour or shape but that you use it. Anything that makes that easier for you is worth considering.

Dr. Mitch Shulman is an Associate Professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at McGill Medical School as well as an Attending Physician in the Emergency Department of the McGill University Health Centre. He’s also the CJAD AM 800 Medical Consultant.

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