Keep cool and protect others with these doctor-approved pointers.

By Maggie Seaver
July 28, 2020

And we thought wearing masks in March was uncomfortable. Now that we’re in the depths of summer, and wearing a face covering remains a primary prevention tactic against the spread of COVID-19, people are experiencing a whole new discomfort dilemma: Trying not to melt under their face coverings in the summer heat and humidity.

While, unfortunately, there isn’t one perfect solution for keeping cool under a preventive face covering, Matthew Levy, DO, MS, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Johns Hopkins, shares a few smart strategies for staying as cool and comfortable as possible while wearing a face mask in the sweltering summer weather. 

“I can’t emphasize enough how important it is, now more than ever, that people protect themselves, their families, and each other by wearing masks,” Dr. Levy says. “It’s as much about preventing the spread [of the coronavirus] to someone else...and if everybody does this the right way, we can really have a phenomenal impact on getting through this pandemic together.”

(He adds that, while he uses the terms “masks” and “coverings” interchangeably throughout, he’s really referring generally to cloth face coverings here rather than surgical masks.)

“But I also acknowledge that it’s hot out and in these circumstances of extreme heat, the heat alone can stress the body, and people need to be extra vigilant when doing things and be more strategic in their actions,” he says. 

Dr. Levy, whose areas of research include heat emergencies and prehospital emergency care, underlines how important it already is for people to make responsible decisions regarding the heat and their health—pandemic notwithstanding. This is going to be especially true for people with existing medical conditions that predispose them to heat-related illnesses.

"Those people should be extra careful because of the physiologic stress being put on the body. During any heat situation, but now if you add the layer of a face covering on top, it certainly can affect their body’s ability to maintain a balanced state and increase stress."

With that in mind, the following heat-beating tips from Dr. Levy will be especially helpful this summer as masks remain an extra layer to contend with.

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1 Avoid the hottest times of the day.

If you have a choice, make the right one for your body. Whether for work, exercise, or errands, Dr. Levy recommends, avoiding the outdoors during the hottest, sunniest times of the day when possible. 

“Try to arrange your schedule so you can be outside in the mornings or the late evenings instead so you’re not exposed to the direct heat and humidity and putting undue heat stress on the body,” he says. “That holds true with or without a mask.” This advice stands, he also notes, whether or not there’s a pandemic.

2 Curb time spent in the heat.

Another strategy is simply to limit your exposure to extreme heat and humidity by going outside in shorter stints, if you’re able to. “[People] should minimize the amount of time that they’re outside, particularly when under special weather advisories, like heat advisories or air quality advisories,” Dr. Levy says.  

Those who can should purposely plan activities that don’t require long periods in extreme temps, and “that allow them to take breaks in the air conditioning in between for a chance to cool off,” Dr. Levy says. Again, the need to wear masks makes this cooling tip especially key these days.

That means if there’s a four-hour hike on your bucket list, and you know it’s going to be a popular, crowded trail where you can’t safely remove your mask for breaks while maintaining social distancing—it's time to rethink it.

3 Stay well-hydrated.

Again, having your face covered up can exacerbate already uncomfortable summer weather, so it’s particularly wise to keep a chilled water bottle handy and sip from it often. And the more you plan to sweat, whether from activity or just standing around in the heat, the more you should plan to drink. (Bonus: You can press the cold bottle against your neck or forehead when things get really toasty.)

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4 Choose a lightweight, breathable fabric.

As with choosing summer clothing, the breezier the mask material (that still effectively reduces the spread of viruses), the better. Avoid restrictive fabrics like polyester and do not use plastics (Dr. Levy has seen it done before, and can’t stress enough how dangerous it is).

“The mask has to allow for the flow of air through it. It should be lightweight and breathable, and made of multiple layers of material,” Dr. Levy says. “If the material is not breathable, then it doesn’t matter what the temperature is outside, it’s going to make it harder for someone to breathe—the physiological action, what we call 'work of breathing,' is increased.”

The good news is that trusty, breathable cotton has consistently been dubbed a great option for improvising your own reusable cloth face mask by research, health officials, and agencies, including the CDC

A recent study published in the Physics of Fluids from AIP Publishing, which tested the effectiveness of different types of masks for blocking respiratory emissions by material and construction found that DIY face coverings made by stitching two layers of cotton quilting fabric, specifically, yielded the best results (compared to a cotton bandana, folded cotton handkerchief, or commercial cone mask).

5 Test out your mask first.

Don’t get stuck on a long walk in public, forced to wear a mask that’s really hot and uncomfortable—not to mention one that might pose some sort of health risk in the heat.

“Try it out inside, particularly if it’s a new mask, before you go outside into the heat and add the element of heat stress to the equation,” Dr. Levy advises.

Take any new cloth face covering for a joy ride around the house for 30 minutes. Can’t breathe very easily? Are you itchy or hot? Better to find out when you can safely take it off than at a popular outdoor shopping center in mid-August.

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6 Bring at least one more.

It’s always smart to tote an extra mask or two in a fresh plastic bag or other dry, clean spot. Not only is wearing a sweaty, dirty mask unpleasant, but it’s not as safe or effective.

“Once that cloth gets wet, either from the rain, happenstance, or just a lot of sweat, its effectiveness goes down—its ability to slow down the spread of droplets through it decreases,” Dr. Levy explains. “Having a spare face covering is important, particularly to change into after you’re working out and things like that.”

7 Go for lighter colors.

Levy advocates for lighter-hued masks, since darker colors tend to retain heat. “It’s the same reason why most people wouldn’t want to wear a black or navy-blue T-shirt outside in this type of temperature—it’s going to get hotter and retain the heat,” he says. 

He also notes that warm air will naturally get trapped from the inside as you exhale into it, adding yet another element. “That certainly is not going to help—could possibly even worsen—someone’s ability to thermoregulate,” he says. “So I think lighter colors are definitely important.”

8 If you're outside and alone, remove it for a quick break.

This comes with a serious word of caution. “I am extra, extra cautious of people taking [their face coverings] off indoors. I think it’s really dangerous,” Levy says. That said, if you’re outside with no one else physically in the area around you, he believes, “it’s OK to have your mask around your neck or down at that point.”

So if you’re melting in the sun at the park, and there isn’t anyone near you (who's not in your immediate household), you’re in the clear to take a mask break and feel the breeze on your nose, mouth, and chin. However, “if you can’t guarantee you’re going to be alone and not come into contact with someone, then have the mask on and in place,” Levy says. "Of course, I would defer to the guidance of local officials—there are some locales that mandate masks at all times now, and I think that’s great hygienic practice."

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