The Dos and Dont’s of Exercising With A Face Mask

Woman at the gym, wearing a face mask, black sports bra, leggings and white sports shoes. She is pulling on weights with both arms outstretched

Andreas Rentz / Getty Images

With multi-layer cloth masks able to provide a 70% reduction in the spread of infectious diseases like the coronavirus, wearing face masks has become an important part of our everyday life.

However, while it’s easy to slap on a mask to grab quick groceries, or to meet up with a friend at the park—certain activities, like exercise, may not be so easily executed when you have a face covering on.

Exercise is an important part of our well-being and should be carried out as frequently as our bodies allow. You can work up a sweat by taking walks, going on runs, or having bicycle rides outside. Alternately, you may prefer to sweat it out at the gym.

To make sure you have the best experience while exercising, we'll be sharing tips on what to do and what to avoid when wearing a face mask during physical exercise.

Benefits of Face Masks

To understand how face masks help with curbing the spread of COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control has specified the following benefits of wearing masks:

  • Face masks help to block the release of particles and their microorganisms when you breathe out. This is especially important for asymptomatic individuals who have no idea that they carry the virus. A mask can help to protect those that they come in contact with from contracting the virus via these droplets.
  • Face masks are also important for the personal protection of the wearer. Masks have been proven to reduce exposure to infectious droplets. This is because these masks can act as filters against particles, preventing their contact with the wearer.

Warnings When Exercising With A Face Mask

While face masks are largely safe to use while exercising, they aren’t always the most comfortable addition to your workout routine, and may sometimes affect your performance.

Alexis Parcells, MD, Board-Certified Plastic Surgeon

Wearing a mask during exercise will decrease your airflow and make it slightly harder to breathe. However, it will not affect your oxygen or carbon dioxide levels.

— Alexis Parcells, MD, Board-Certified Plastic Surgeon

While this applies to most people—it may not cover those with severe respiratory conditions. If you live with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, occupational lung disease, or pulmonary hypertension, it may not be a great idea for you to exercise with a face mask on.

Dos and Dont's of Wearing Face Masks While Exercising

Below is a list of dos and dont's that you should know before exercising with a face mask on.

Dos
  • Choose the right fabric

  • Consider your environment (i.e., weather, humidity) before working out

  • Bring your own equipment

  • Carry an extra mask

  • Wash your mask after each use

Dont's
  • Avoid crowded gyms/workout areas

  • Don't exercise where others are not wearing masks

  • Throw away or wash wet masks

Do Choose the Right Fabric 

If you’ve had a chance to exercise with a face mask on, you’ll probably agree that working out with a soaked-through, sweaty mask can be an unpleasant experience.

To avoid this, Dr. Parcells recommends workout face masks that are made with a moisture-wicking fabric.

As a pro-tip, dermatology specialist and physician assistant Jennifer M. Wong, RPA-C at Advanced Dermatology PC can clarify. She recommends that “the fabric for exercise masks should be similar to the workout clothing you'd choose.”

However, not every moisture-wicking mask will suit your face or your needs when exercising, so be sure to try out your mask before making your purchase.

Do Take Note of Your Environment

Before the pandemic, exercising outside usually came with the need to consider the weather, and how the rain or humidity may affect your workout. 

However, with the current state of affairs, the effect of these conditions on your mask is also important to think about.

Wong says, "Outside weather is variable so we can sometimes exercise with humidity, wind, snow, or rain. Therefore, although getting fresh air is important, these factors can soil or dampen masks." 

Do Bring Your Own Equipment Whenever Possible

To make sure you're extra covered, support your mask use by bringing along your personal equipment when exercising. This is of course where circumstances permit.

For instance, carry your yoga mat along to studio sessions, or bring a water bottle to outdoor group workouts instead of getting water from drinking fountains.

Do Carry a Spare Mask Along

Whether you're killing it on the treadmill, or going on your third lap around your neighborhood, it's always advisable to bring a spare mask along to replace an already sweat-filled mask. 

Do Wash Your Mask After Each Use

Wong suggests that reusable masks should be cleaned after every use, especially after a workout where you have perspired.

This is always advisable for good hygiene as well as to protect the skin from mask-related irritation.

Don't Workout in Areas Where People Aren’t Wearing Masks

"Whenever you choose a location to exercise, take an inventory of the number of people around. If those around you are not using a mask, there is a much higher risk of transmission, especially in poorly ventilated studios, so opt for an outdoor or home gym activity instead," says Dr. Parcell.

This will help to limit your exposure to the virus, as well as the chances of transferring it to unsuspecting individuals.

Don't Exercise In Areas Where Physical Distancing Is Hard to Maintain

Whether outdoors, or in covered spaces, it isn't advisable to be in close proximity with people, especially during physical activity where body fluids like sweat and spit may be freely exchanged. This is regardless of mask use, as you'll remember that multi-layer masks are only 70% effective in preventing the spread of the virus.

Always opt for spacious environments for your workouts while also wearing your mask.

Don't Continue Using Wet Masks

In addition to being plenty uncomfortable, Dr. Parcells explains that a wet mask can be less effective at filtering, as it becomes less breathable. 

Swap out a wet and compromised mask for a dry spare when working out in outdoor or indoor spaces.

Skincare Tips When Exercising With A Face Mask

If you frequently experience skin irritation or rashes after working out with a face mask, Dr. Parcells explains why, “When you combine sweat, oil, and bacteria with a moist environment under your mask, irritation can be inevitable.” 

“It’s important to remove the mask used for exercise as soon as you safely can. Allow your skin to breathe and consider cleansing your face immediately. If you must reapply a mask, choose a soft, natural, and breathable material, such as 100% cotton. Avoid synthetic materials such as polyester, nylon, or rayon,” says Dr. Parcell. 

Maskne

When it comes to mask care, Dr. Parcells notes that oils from the skin often builds up while wearing a mask. This, in turn, clog pores and leads to breakouts, also known as maskne. So, it's important to make sure you wash your mask after each use.

Treating Maskne

According to Dr. Parcell, products that contain salicylic acids and benzoyl peroxide can help to prevent and heal mild breakouts. Parcell also recommends using oil-free or non-comedogenic products so you don't clog your pores.

Dr. Parcell says, "use a gentle facial cleanser or facial wipe to reduce the amount of oil and sweat the face can accumulate” and advises people to reach out to their physician if they find that their acne has not improved.

Tips For Cleaning Masks While Exercising

Mask Cleaning Tips

To properly clean your mask, the CDC recommends the following easy measures:

  • Cleaning in a washing machine using regular laundry detergent.
  • Hand-washing the mask with tap water and laundry detergent or soap.
  • The mask may be air-dried under direct sunlight or left to lay flat to dry completely. It may also be dried in a warm or hot dryer.
  • Disposable masks should be thrown away after use.

A Word From Verywell

In light of current circumstances, there's no better time than now to get involved in regular physical activity. 

This is because exercise is a great way to improve your health and wellness. It can also be very beneficial for enhancing your emotional well-being. However, to protect your welfare, wearing face masks when exercising outside of your home is a proven way to engage in physical activity safely.

For best mask practices, use the correct fabrics, routinely clean your cloth mask, be sure to carry a spare and observe other guidelines listed above. Masks offer a high level of protection against the coronavirus and should be a constant addition to your workout gear.

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Article Sources
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Science Brief: Community Use of Cloth Masks to Control the Spread of SARS-CoV-2. Updated November 20, 2020.

  2. NIH. Face masks are safe for most people to wear during exercise. Published December 23, 2020.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How to store and wash masks. Updated October 28, 2020.