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MEDICAL DISCLAIMER: I'm not a medical professional or medical mask engineer, I'm a patient who has significant user-experience with a wide array of masks, and who has had to have many long conversations with medical professionals and PPE engineers to figure out how to keep me safe.



1. Experiment

Something not quite working? Try a different design. The mask industry has exploded this year, it's a very exciting time in mask and respirator innovation. Dizzy or itchy? Try a different material. Hurts in certain areas? Try a different strap design. Don't like the way it feels against your face? Try a different mask shape.

2. Material safety

This is a piece of textile over your mouth and nose, so make sure whilst you protect yourself from breathing in (or out) the virus, that you are also not breathing in something else harmful.


Polyester blends, microfibre, neoprene etc. You don't want this in your lungs.

Synthetic fabrics are the second highest source of microplastics in our lungs and waterways. The health hazard is the same for clothing and bedding, but it's obviously significantly more problematic when that fabric is directly over your mouth and nose. Watch out for memory foam nose pieces, synthetic rubber or soft plastic elements, too. Also, if you aren't a health professional who requires an N95 polypropylene mask for work safety, avoid this petrochemical-derived textile.


Non-organic cotton soaks up a lot of pesticides. Switch to organic fibres, or ones which require less chemicals to grow like hemp, linen or silk.


I've been seeing masks advertising this, or people doing DIY. Do not use or add essential oils to your mask. I know it was all the rage for plague doctors to stuff aromatics in their beaks, but the VOC levels in essential oils can be damaging to your lungs, and potentially fatal to those with sensitivities. Same goes for perfumes, which have the VOC danger of EOs, with the added risk of being 85-90% petroleum-derived and full of phthalates. Fragrance is unsafe.

3. Fit

Seal is everything. Test for air leakage around the sides, your nose or cheeks. No beards, they compromise your seal.

4. Valves

This is controversial. There are in fact pluses and minuses to valves, and the rhetoric that masks protect others not you, and that valves are dangerous, are both oversimplifications of the data and neither are fully accurate. Valves can allow for a relatively forceful stream of breath to exit unfiltered in a straight direction -- this is where a front-facing valve is much more problematic than side valves. The droplets that exit an exhalation valve are quite heavy and large, which is dangerous at close range, but tends to fall to the ground more quickly than smaller droplets. Valves can also create a more effective seal, thereby reducing side leakage (which has a similar issue to the breath that comes through an exhalation valve), and reduce wetness of mask fabric which may compromise filtering ability.

But, on balance, if I were to preference one over the other for covid-19 safety, based on current data and my long experience of valved and unvalved masks, I would definitely go valveless for the current situation.

5. Work with what you've got

If all you have is regular cotton...

If all you have is a silk scarf...

If all you have is a cut up shirt...

If all you have is a valved mask...

If all you have is a synthetic mask and you are concerned about tip #2…

Wear it. Layer, stack, augment. Anything is better than no mask at all.

6: Brackets, Braces, Ear savers, Straps

There are lots of adaptive devices for augmenting your mask.


Brackets are silicone frames placed inside your mask that lift the mask away from the face. This is great if you have sensory issues with fabric touching your mouth and nose.


Braces are placed over the top of a loose mask, eg surgical style mask, to give a tighter seal. You can also make your own with rubber bands.


For those who get sore ears from ear loop masks, you can attach ear savers, or sew buttons onto hats or headbands, or hook the ear loops over hair buns or pigtails.


Some masks use neck or head straps instead of ear loops, but you can also add strap attachments to ear loops, or double strap over different parts of the head to give a better seal. You can also make your own straps with fabric or elastic.

7. Donning and doffing hygiene

Clean and/or newly gloved hands to put it on and take it off. Use the ear loops or straps to put it on and then adjust the fit around your nose. Avoid touching your mask (or face) when wearing it.

8. Vectors of contamination

When you have an immune disorder, you keep a running log in your head of every potentially contaminated surface and if you have touched it and then what else you have touched. What are you touching? With what? Where do you keep your mask when not in use? Have multiple masks so you can wash them when they are contaminated (or at the end of each day). This frequent washing is another reason to avoid synthetic fabrics.

9. Oxygen

It may feel uncomfortable or more effortful breathing with a mask, but your oxygen is fine.

I have regular issues with low oxygen saturation (from a medical condition, not from mask use!), so I have to wear a pulse oximeter a lot. I have never experienced an SpO2 drop from mask use, even when stacking masks plus a scarf, even when wearing a respirator for 12 hours straight. You are not rebreathing your CO2. If you are having drops in your oxygen sats, it isn't caused by a mask, and you should see your doctor.

10. Make it fashion

With annual summer megablazes in Australia, increasing air pollution and the potential for future pandemics, it looks like masks, in one form or another, are going to become a regular part of our culture.

Moving away from purely medical aesthetics can increase compliance -- and just as getting rainbow spokes doesn't prevent my wheelchair from being a serious mobility aid, wearing a medical device that also looks fierce doesn't detract from its purpose. Find what works for you, what suits your outfits, what expresses your personality or mood. What makes wearing a mask feel good?

Catch us for the next installment of Theatre and Plagues: the history and future of masks on September 8th.

PANDEMIC MASKS: Pandemic Masks
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