COVID-19 and masks: Tips for families

What to know about masks and how to introduce them to your family.

A young girl wearing a cloth mask.
01 July 2020

Masks help stop the COVID-19 virus from spreading, but that doesn’t make them easy to introduce to children, as many parents have been discovering.

The practice of wearing a mask to reduce the transmission of germs has a long history in some countries. But for many families, 2020 will be remembered as the first time putting on a mask. 

If you haven't worn a mask before then you likely have many questions. To help you take the best decisions for your family, we’ve rounded up the latest expert information on masks and COVID-19, how to wear and look after masks correctly, and ideas on how to successfully introduce them to your family: 

For general information on COVID-19, its symptoms, how it spreads, and how to protect yourself and your children, read COVID-19: What parents should know.

Why wear a mask or face covering?

One of the main ways that COVID-19 spreads is through respiratory droplets that people expel when they talk, sing, cough or sneeze. While research is ongoing, we now know that the virus can be spread by people not showing symptoms, meaning some people can be contagious and not even realize it.

That is one of the reasons why physical distancing is so important in places where COVID-19 is widespread. But it’s not always possible to keep a distance from others in crowded public places, which is why the use of a fabric mask in such settings is recommended to protect each other. 

But remember, a mask alone won’t prevent the spread of COVID-19 – we all need to continue practicing physical distancing and washing our hands frequently. By taking these steps together, we can beat COVID-19. 

What type of mask should I get for my family? 

Non-medical masks (also called fabric masks or face coverings): If you and your family live in a place where COVID-19 is widespread and don’t have any COVID-19 symptoms, then non-medical masks are recommended.

Medical masks: Medical masks are in short supply globally because of the pandemic. They are recommended if you or a family member is at a higher risk of severe illness due to COVID-19 (people over 60 years old or with underlying health conditions), or if you are caring for someone with COVID-19. A medical mask should be worn to protect others, if you have symptoms of COVID-19.

What type of fabric mask is best?

Fabric masks or face coverings come in a wide variety of materials and can be something you make at home or buy in a store. While research into the use of fabric masks is ongoing, their effectiveness depends on the types of fabric used and the number of layers. The World Health Organization recommends three layers made up of:

  • an inner layer of absorbent material such as cotton
  • a middle layer of non-woven material such as polypropylene 
  • an outer layer of non-absorbent material, such as polyester or polyester blend

Whatever type of face covering you choose, it should cover the nose, mouth and chin and be secured with elastic loops or ties. 

The World Health Organization also discourages masks with exhalation valves. These valves let unfiltered air escape, making them less effective for preventing the transmission of diseases like COVID-19.

What about face shields?

Face shields help provide eye protection, but are not the same as masks when it comes to protection from respiratory droplets. However, for those who have difficulties wearing a non-medical mask (people with cognitive, respiratory, or hearing impairments, for example), face shields can be considered as an alternative. If you choose to use one, make sure it covers the sides of your face and below your chin.

When should my family wear a mask?

Check to see if your local authorities require you to wear masks in certain settings and for any age-specific recommendations where you live. 

Whether your children should wear a mask depends on a number of factors, including their age and ability to safely and appropriately use a mask. See UNICEF and the World Health Organization's guidance for more details. 

If COVID-19 is widespread in your area, then a fabric mask should be worn in all public settings where it is difficult to keep a physical distance from others, and always when in indoor public spaces. Avoid going to crowded places and enclosed indoor spaces with poor ventilation as much as possible. 

There’s a lot of inaccurate information about the use of masks and COVID-19 circulating, so make sure to use reputable sources like UNICEF, WHO, and your national and local health authorities when taking decisions that concern your family’s health. 

When shouldn’t you wear a mask?

Masks should not be used worn by anyone who is unable to remove the mask without help, including infants and young children, or anyone having difficulty breathing.

UNICEF and WHO recommend that children aged 5 years and under should not be required to wear masks. This is based on child safety and recognizes that children may reach developmental milestones at different ages.

Some countries have different recommendations on mask use by children, so it’s important to check with your local authorities on any age-specific requirements. If they require children aged 5 years and under to wear masks, then you or another caregiver should be within direct line of sight to supervise the safe use of the mask. 

If you or a family member has a health condition or disability that makes it difficult to wear a mask, check with your doctor for advice on what is best for you. 

When exercising, choose a place where wearing a mask isn’t needed, such as at home or in a space (such as outdoors) where you can keep a safe physical distance from others. Children and adults should not wear masks when playing sports or doing physical activities, so that it doesn't compromise their breathing. Sweat can also make the mask become wet, making it difficult to breathe and easier for germs to grow. 

What should I look for when getting a mask for my children? 

Many masks are designed for adults and won’t fit children properly. If you are buying masks, choose one that is appropriately sized for your child. Whether you are buying or making masks for your children, check that they cover their mouth, nose and chin, and don’t have any gaps on the sides or block their vision. Make sure they can breathe comfortably in the mask while walking briskly and talking.

How to clean a fabric mask

Wash fabric masks using soap or detergent, preferably in hot water (at least 60 degrees Celsius) at least once a day. If machine washing, use the warmest appropriate setting for the type of fabric. If handwashing, use hot, soapy water. After washing, the mask should be dried completely before being worn again. Store masks in a clean bag.

How to wear a mask correctly

A graphic of a boy wearing a facial mask properly.
UNICEF Thailand/2021/Jirapha Laksanawisit

Correctly wearing, removing and caring for a mask is important to protect your health and those around you. Practice following this checklist with your family to turn it into a routine.

When putting on a mask

  • Always start by washing your hands with soap and water before putting on a mask. 
  • Make sure the mask is clean. Check it for tears or holes. Don’t wear it if dirty or damaged.
  • Adjust the mask to securely cover the mouth, nose and chin, leaving no gaps on the sides.
  • Make sure it is comfortable to breathe. 

While wearing a mask

  • Change the mask if it gets dirty or wet.
  • Don’t pull the mask down under the nose or chin, or wear it on your head – it should fully cover the mouth and nose to be effective.
  • Do not touch the mask while wearing it. 

Tip: If you and your family plan to take masks off and reuse them during the day, carry clean resealable bags to store them. Use a separate bag for each mask in your family. When placing the mask in or removing it from the bag, handle the mask by the elastic loops or ties (without touching the mask surface) to avoid possible contamination. Remember to wash your hands before putting it on. 

When taking off a mask

  • Wash hands before taking off the mask.
  • Take off the mask by removing it using the elastic loops or ties. Avoid touching the front of the mask.
  • Wash your hands after removing the mask.
  • Fabric masks should be washed after each use and stored in a clean bag.
  • Medical masks are single-use and should be disposed of in a closed bin.

6 common mistakes to avoid

A graphic of a girl wearing a mask below her nose.

Don't pull below the nose

A graphic of a boy wearing a facial mask while leaving his chin exposed.

Don't leave the chin exposed

A graphic of a girl wearing a facial mask below her chin.

Don't pull below the chin

A graphic of a girl touching her facial mask.

Don't touch the mask while wearing it

A graphic of a girl wearing a facial mask loosely.

Don't wear a loose mask

A graphic of a boy wearing a dirty facial mask.

Don't wear a dirty, damaged or wet mask.

Talking to your children about masks

The COVID-19 pandemic has upset family life around the world causing stress, anxiety and sadness. Understandably masks may add to such feelings for many children, especially in places where they are not used to wearing masks. For younger children in particular, mask wearing can be confusing and upsetting. 

If your family hasn’t worn masks before, it’s important to approach it in an open and supportive way with your children. Mask wearing is developing a habit, so ongoing reminders and consistent behaviour will be key. It’s also important to remind your children that a mask should always be combined with other key precautions (such as physical distancing, frequent handwashing) to protect themselves and everyone else. 

Here are some ideas to help you introduce masks to your family:

Be honest

Use age-appropriate language and be sensitive to your children’s level of anxiety. Recognize that masks aren’t super fun for any of us. But explain how by wearing masks, we can help keep people around us safe, including older and more vulnerable members of society. Wearing a mask shows that we care about each other.

Remind them that there are lots of experts working hard to stop COVID-19, but they need our help and that means taking every precaution.

And it’s important for all of us to remember that wearing a mask alone doesn’t make us safe, we need to keep washing our hands frequently and maintaining a distance from people outside our homes. 

Listen and show empathy

Ask your children what they think and look for signs of anxiety such as a change in their body language or tone of voice. Answer their questions as best you can. It’s OK not to know all the answers – this is a new situation for all of us. Remind them that they can always come to you with any questions or concerns at any time. Check regularly on how they are feeling. Depending on their age, you could ask what they’re hearing from friends to start the conversation and to make sure they have reliable information. 

Start out at home 

Try wearing the masks at home for a while together and gradually build up the time to help your children get used to wearing one. Using the checklist above, practice putting on, wearing and taking off the masks together. 

Remember that younger children rely more on visual communication cues like smiling, so practice smiling with masks on with them and consider how your tone of voice can help. You could also put a mask on a favourite stuffed animal with them to help masks appear more familiar.

Involve your children 

Masks come in many colours and designs and children will see them as an opportunity to express themselves. Try to turn choosing a mask or fabric into a fun activity and involve them as much as possible. Remember, the more your children like the look of their masks, the more likely they are to wear them even when you’re not around. 

Be consistent 

Successful mask wearing is about developing a new habit, so modelling the right behaviour and repetition are key. Find ways to repeat the importance of wearing a mask correctly and encourage your family to remind each other if you see something that isn’t right. Children are quick to spot inconsistencies, so be mindful of the example you set and encourage relatives and friends around your family to follow recommendations on wearing masks as well.

See UNICEF and World Health Organization guidance for more information on masks.

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