10 Etiquette Rules to Follow Whenever You Wear a Face Mask

There's a right and wrong way to wear, handle, and care for your COVID-19 face covering. Commit these dos and don'ts to memory, and you'll never risk turning into an embarrassing meme—or, you know, risk the lives of the innocent strangers you encounter.

If you’ve left your house at any point in the past few months, you’ve no doubt been subjected to (or perhaps been the subject of—ahem—you know who you are) a face mask faux pas or two. By now, we’ve all seen the photo of the airplane passenger who wore his face mask over his eyes to block out the light while he napped, leaving his nose and mouth entirely exposed. And in the last week, I’ve encountered one man whose torn and tattered disposable mask was taped together, watched as another man removed his mask to answer his phone, and witnessed a woman who took hers off to use as a makeshift fanning device in a warm room (if only she’d known about these four helpful tips for wearing a face mask when it’s hot).

So, while we’re all getting used to this “new normal” of mask life, it seems a primer on proper etiquette could help. “Masks are here to stay, at least until we have a vaccine and herd immunity,” says Lisa Mirza Grotts, aka the Golden Rules Gal, an etiquette expert in San Francisco. “A mask is worn to protect yourself and others. Practice the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated.”

Don’t leave home without a mask

Keys? Check. Phone? Check. Mask? Uh-oh. Forming new habits can be tough, so remembering to mask-up when you head out your front door could take a little effort initially. “Masks are the new wardrobe staple,” says Grotts. Leave a couple in your purse, in your car, or hanging on the door you exit—anywhere that will jog your memory and ensure you have a mask handy at all times. Stocking up on masks in fun colors or patterns or with a sassy saying across them may even add a little pizazz to your outfit (like these 10 stylish masks you can buy for work) or make someone else smile.

Don’t let your nose show

Using a mask to only cover your mouth isn’t going to cut it. “It should fit snugly around your face, and cover your mouth, nose, and chin,” says Grotts. “Don’t let your nose show.” This advice goes for the entire duration you’re out and about—don’t pull your mask down to talk to people, chat on the phone, or scratch an itch.

Don’t put your mask on a restaurant table

As a general rule of thumb, when dining at a restaurant, you should always wear your mask until you are seated at your table. However, a mask is no longer necessary when you’re eating or drinking—but then what do you do with it? “Just like we don’t leave keys or phones on the table, avoid leaving your mask on the table,” says Grotts. “Your germs will not be welcomed. Use your pocket or handbag to store your mask until you leave.” When you’re done eating and drinking, don’t forget to mask up again—that goes for when you’re headed to the restroom as well as leaving the restaurant. To further protect yourself while dining out, familiarize yourself with these 12 dos and don’ts for avoiding germs at restaurants.

Don’t be afraid to ask a service-provider to don a mask

At some point, you’re probably going to find yourself in a situation where a service worker—such as a nail tech or server—isn’t wearing a mask, but should be. So how do you, a paying customer, bring it to their attention? “If you don’t feel comfortable, it’s OK to simply say something along the lines of, ‘Do you have a mask you can please wear during my visit? I want to be extra careful,'” says Myka Meier, founder of Beaumont Etiquette, based in New York City. “If the person says no, then I would advise speaking to a manager. Politely explaining your reasoning and respectfully asking would be the way to go.”

Don’t argue with someone about wearing a mask

Now, let’s say you’re the person who doesn’t want to wear a mask. “If you are in a place that has a rule mandating masks be worn, then you should follow suit or choose another place to go,” says Meier. “If it is not mandatory and someone asks you to put on a mask, you can instead politely agree to have a certain amount of space in between the two of you so both people feel comfortable.”

Family of Three Wearing Masks Outdoors During 2020 PandemicAzmanJaka/Getty Images

Do follow the rules

Local governments may choose to make mask-wearing mandatory, but even if yours doesn’t, individual restaurants, buildings, ride-share companies, and retail outlets—here’s a list of 11 stores that won’t let you in without a face mask, including Costco and Apple—may have their own rules for customers to abide by. “The new discussion is about civil liberties and masks,” says Grotts. “While I understand the right to refuse masking, another person does not have the right to put me or others in harm’s way. At this stage of the pandemic, everyone should be more than comfortable with the mask rule.”

Do keep extra masks on-hand for guests

Sometimes, even the most well-meaning guests to your home—from your neighbors and mother-in-law to your handyman or plumber—may forget to bring or wear a mask. But that doesn’t mean you have to turn them away. “If they don’t have one, I provide it—as well as disposable gloves—so I don’t have to sanitize all the surfaces after they leave,” says Grotts.

Do handle a mask properly

Just as there’s a right and wrong way to wear a mask, there’s a right and wrong way to put on and take off your mask. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests washing your hands before putting on your face covering. When it comes time to remove a cloth mask, the organization says to handle it only by the ear loops or ties, and place it in the washing machine. Take care not to touch your eyes, nose, or mouth during the removal process and wash your hands right away.

Do make sure your mask is clean and in good shape

It should go without saying, but don’t wear a mask that is torn or damaged in any way, as that likely prevents it from doing its job. And after you’ve worn it once, it’s time for a thorough cleaning. According to the CDC, you can include your face coverings in your regular loads of laundry or wash by hand. Afterward, you can place the mask in direct sunlight to dry or use the highest heat setting on your dryer. If you choose the one-time-use versions, learn how to dispose of those face masks properly.

Do skip the mask when you’re not around others

Taking a hike on an empty trail? Sunbathing in your backyard and nobody else is around? “Masks are only necessary when you cannot social distance,” says Grotts. “If you’re not in close contact with others, then you don’t need one.” These are other examples of situations in which it’s OK to skip the mask.

For more on this developing situation, including how life might be different post-lockdown, see our comprehensive Coronavirus Guide.

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Jill Schildhouse
Jill Schildhouse is an award-winning writer based in Phoenix who regularly covers travel, health and wellness, personal finance and e-commerce. Her bylines have appeared in Reader's Digest, The Healthy, Oxygen, AAA, Brides, Vegetarian Times, and Phoenix Home & Garden magazines, among others. She earned a BA in corporate communications from Northern Illinois University. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin