Storing masks: we interview the experts

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It’s looking good! Restaurants are now open and events can be held again. But what’s not going away for a while are masks. The do's and don’ts of wearing face masks.

Mask hygiene: we interview the experts

Everyone knows the correct way to put on and wear a mask. However, there are a few unanswered questions when it comes to handling masks. After all, the etiquette rules on wearing and storing masks are yet to be written. We spoke to Anna Stepien-Czarniecka who told us what’s important in terms of mask hygiene.

When and how often should we disinfect our hands at a restaurant?

Even though the first thing we should remember when entering a restaurant is to wash our hands, it should be part of the routine to disinfect our hands again with our own disinfectant while sitting at the table. This stems from the fact that when crossing the restaurant and opening different doors or generally touching different surfaces, the possibility of cross-contamination increases. Only after disinfecting your hands should you remove the mask by the elastic bands.

When does a mask develop into a «germ spreader»?

This can happen relatively quickly. For example: if we touch the mask a few times while wearing it. This is often the case when the mask doesn’t fit properly and we have to constantly readjust it. The germs on the mask are transferred to our hands and those on our hands to the mask. In this case, corona can be caught as a smear infection. But this can easily be avoided.

When removing the mask, wearers should avoid touching the face-covering surface of the mask to prevent the transfer of germs from the mask to their hands.
Dr. Anna Stepien-Czarniecka, biologist at ETH Zurich

Where is the best place to put a mask?

Practice has shown that, when drinking and eating, many people pull the mask under their chin, attach it to their arm or simply lay it on the table. Even many doctors have different opinions on this, but where everyone agrees is that «putting the mask on the table» is a no-go!

Why? Pathogens such as SARS-CoV-2 are spread through the air and through droplets that are produced when we speak and breathe. Therefore, even during a short conversation, for example with friends and family or with a colleague at work, droplets land on the mask, and contaminate it.

Also, tables and other surfaces are usually contaminated with germs, despite regular cleaning. If the mask is then placed on the table, the table will be contaminated by the germs on the mask and the mask by the germs on the table. If we then put the mask back on again after eating and take a deep breath – everyone knows that it's difficult to breathe through the mask – the germs are likely to be catapulted straight into the lungs.

Where is the best place to store a mask?

The ideal place is a container that prevents the mask from touching the table or other surfaces and allows the mask to breathe. In addition, the container should ideally be made of an antiviral and antibacterial material, like the models produced by «Just in Case». These are designed with trapezium-shaped air holes that help the mask to dry.

In the absence of such a case, a bag made of a breathable fabric or a clean paper bag is also good in enabling the mask to dry. By contrast, if the mask is stored in an airtight container, the bacteria and fungi that are transferred to the mask when we breathe can multiply. And this, in turn, can lead to skin imperfections and fungal infections when the wearer puts the mask on again.

Are necklaces and lanyards good for storing a mask?

Using a new fashion accessory like a mask lanyard, on which the mask hangs in front of the person’s chest after it is removed, exposes the inside of the mask to the air. This leads to the risk of the mask becoming contaminated by a pathogen such as SARS-CoV-2 and of the wearer coming into direct contact with it when they put the mask on again.

A table is the last place you should put your mask.
Dr. Anna Stepien-Czarniecka, biologist at ETH Zurich

Why must people who are vaccinated or have recovered from the disease wear a mask?

The vaccination is very important in the battle against the pandemic. Although existing vaccines are highly efficient, they are not 100% effective. There's always a risk of becoming infected and passing the infection on. Also, with the new COVID-19 variants currently going around the world, it is not yet possible to assess to what extent we are protected by the vaccines. And as long as more and more infections are being registered, it is advisable that people protect themselves and others by wearing a mask. For this reason, we will be living with masks for quite a while yet.

What do you think: will the mask requirement stay in place?

We all hope that masks soon won’t be necessary, as is the case outdoors now. In other places such as in trains, buses and planes, the mask will continue to be used as a proven protective measure.

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