Face masks have been a part of our daily lives since the spring, and they are going to be even more important in the next few weeks and months as we enter what public health experts predict will be the worst phase of the coronavirus pandemic. The United States is recording record numbers of new cases, and those numbers are expected to climb even higher as the weather turns colder and more people gather indoors.

CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield says face masks are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of COVID-19, particularly when used universally within communities. The federal government is moving toward a more coordinated national program of mask requirements in the coming months and some states are beefing up their mask mandates. In Massachusetts, all persons over the age of five are now required to wear face coverings at all times when in public, indoors and outdoors, even when social distancing is possible.

The CDC now says cloth face masks protect you, not just those around you. It recommends using non-valve cloth face coverings that have two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric with a higher thread count, reserving N95 masks for medical professionals. In order for your mask to offer the most protection, proper handling and care is essential. Here’s what you should know:

How to put on and take off your mask

To put on a face mask, start by washing your hands with soap and water or hand sanitizer. Then take a clean mask and secure it over your face. Masks should cover your nose and mouth and be secured under your chin and fit snugly against the sides of your face.  Do not touch your mask once it is positioned properly.

When taking  off the mask, start with clean hands. Untie the ties or grasp the ear loops, being careful not to touch the fabric. Fold the outside corners together. If you plan to use the mask again, put it in a clean paper bag or on a clean surface. If the mask is dirty, place it in a sealed plastic bag until you can wash it or toss it directly into the laundry. Wet or dirty masks should be washed as soon as possible to prevent mold growth.

How to clean your mask

Fabric masks should be washed daily — or sooner if they get wet or dirty — either by hand or in the washing machine.

 Machine Washing – To machine wash a face mask, use detergent and water according to the instructions on the clothing label. If you are sensitive to fragrances, consider using an unscented detergent. A mesh laundry bag is helpful to prevent your mask from getting snagged, or lost, in the wash.

 Hand Washing – To hand wash a face mask, all you need is water and soap or laundry detergent. Scrub your mask in soapy water for at least 20 seconds and then thoroughly rinse it in clean water to get out all the soap.

Drying – A mask should be completely dry before it is worn again. This is important because wet masks can be hard to breathe through and are less effective than dry masks. Many masks can go in the dryer, but be sure to check the clothing labels. The heat from the dryer could accelerate wear on the fabric and elastics, or cause it to shrink or change shape. You can also air dry face masks. The CDC recommends hanging masks in direct sunlight to dry, but if that is not possible hang it or lay it flat while it dries. Once dry, store the mask in a clean place until you’re ready to use it.

Face masks, when combined with other preventative measures such as frequent hand washing and social distancing, can protect you, your family, and your community from COVID-19. So, before you head out the door, make sure you have your keys, your phone, and your face mask.