How to Wear Your Protective Mask When the Air Is Bad

Fans wear face masks in the stands during the NFL game between the Oakland Raiders and the Los Angeles Chargers at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on November 11, 2018.  (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

When I left for work this morning, I grabbed a mask to protect my lungs from the smoky haze hovering over Oakland. I've worn these over the years while covering wildfires, yet I know they can give me a false sense of security because they're not foolproof.

Plenty of us in the Bay Area have masks. Not enough of us know which kinds work best, or how to wear them for peak efficiency.

Online or in hardware stores, look for masks marked as either N95 or P100.  The designation indicates that the respirator blocks at least 95-99% of particulate matter floating in the air. Those microscopic specks can cause respiratory issues and trigger heart attacks. Do not use dust or surgical masks; they're not up to the job.

With the proper mask, a snug fit around your nose and mouth is really important, because tiny slits can allow smoke to sneak through. Choose a brand that aligns with your facial structure.

"A mask is actually kind of uncomfortable if you wear it correctly," says UCSF pulmonologist Dr. Elizabeth Gibb. "It should leave an indentation on your face when you take it off."

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Tighten the straps above and below the ears and make sure they do not cross on the back of your head. Press the metal nose seal tightly against your skin.

"The respirator should collapse as you breath in and out and should not let any air in from the sides," says Karen Riveles, toxicologist for the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

Jason House attempts to put a respirator mask on his dog Rowland at an evacuee encampment in a Walmart parking lot in Chico, California on November 17, 2018.

Public health officials do not recommend masks for people with beards or mustaches, because facial hair reduces their effectiveness. Riveles says respirators are also not appropriate for kids, but she adds that using some kind of protection is better than nothing.

While you're outdoors, do not take your mask on and off because polluted air can sneak into the mask's pocket around your mouth. Finally, replace your mask every few days or as soon as it appears dirty.

If you smell smoke, your body is taking a hit. Public health officials say the best precaution is to stay indoors with sealed windows until the air clears. You can check the region's air quality here.

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