Mask Etiquette 2021: When, Where, and How to Wear a Face Mask

ask etiquette

The official mask-wearing guidelines have changed repeatedly over the past 18 months in response to vaccination levels, infection levels, risk levels and other factors. The frequent changes have often left people confused about whether they’re required to wear masks in specific situations — indoors, outdoors, in crowded areas, with close friends who are fully vaccinated — there are so many differing levels of risk that it can be dizzying to try to keep up with it all. Because the level of risk varies so widely from community to community, it’s difficult to lay out specific rules for wearing face masks, but you can practice some common sense mask etiquette to help protect yourself, your family and your community.

Know the CDC Guidelines and Risk Levels

The CDC publishes and regularly updates its guidelines for wearing masks, and should be your first stop in making decisions about when and where to wear a mask. On the CDC website, you’ll find travel recommendations for both international and domestic travel to help you determine the level of risk for different travel destinations. The page includes recommendations for mask-wearing at each level of risk. 

The Basics

As of October 13, 2021, the CDC notes that the United States government requires anyone over the age of 2 to wear a mask over your mouth and nose on planes, buses, trains, and other forms of public transportation traveling into, within, or out of the United States and while indoors at U.S. transportation hubs such as airports and stations. Travelers are not required to wear a mask in outdoor areas of a conveyance (like on open deck areas of a ferry or the uncovered top deck of a bus). 


Beyond that, states and local governments may have additional requirements for mask wearing. The best source of information about what is required in your city or town — or your destination — is that city’s local government website. 

When to Wear a Face Mask

In addition to the travel guidelines, the CDC also recommends that people who are aged 2 or older and who are not fully vaccinated should wear face masks that cover the nose and mouth in indoor public spaces. They do not generally need to wear a mask outdoors. There are exceptions for certain situations, such as the following:


  • People who are immunocompromised should take all precautions recommended for unvaccinated people, including wearing a well-fitted face mask.
  • In areas where there are high numbers of COVID cases, the CDC suggests wearing a mask in crowded outdoor settings or activities that bring you into close contact with other people.
  • In areas of substantial or high transmission, consider wearing a mask, even if you are fully vaccinated.

Mask Etiquette 101

Beyond simply following the rules, there are also times when you — or others you know — may choose to wear a mask out of concern for others or for your own health. Some of the situations where you might wear a mask include the following:


  • When it’s required by your employer. This is especially true of people who work in health care settings or in settings where they regularly interact with people who are at high risk of serious illness if they contract COVID-19.
  • When it’s required by the business you’re patronizing. 
  • When you’re visiting friends who are immunocompromised or in a high-risk category.
  • When you’re a guest in someone’s home, and they request that you wear a mask.
  • When you’re attending a social function where mask-wearing has been suggested or requested.

Social Etiquette for Mask Wearing

In the autumn of 2020, AARP published a set of guidelines to help people navigate the complications of mask etiquette in certain situations. Their guidelines are worth revisiting now, after a period where the masking restrictions have been loosened and then tightened again. Here are some basic guidelines for mask wearing etiquette:


  • If you’re hosting an event, clearly state your expectations about mask wearing in your invitation. This gives guests prior notice and allows them to make their own choices about whether or not to attend.
  • If you’re invited to an event and the host hasn’t specified, ask about their expectations and use their response to help you decide if you’re comfortable attending.
  • If you’re a host or an owner of a business, keep a supply of disposable masks on hand to offer to guests and customers.
  • Avoid confronting strangers about wearing masks in casual settings. 

How to Wear a Mask Properly

A mask can only protect you properly if you wear it properly. A properly fitted mask will cover your mouth and nose completely, and secure under your chin and behind your ears. When wearing a mask, it should cover the entire area from the bridge of your nose to below your chin. It should not be worn below your nose, under your chin, looped over one ear, or dangling from your wrist. In addition, the CDC recommends the following proper handling of face masks:


  • Wear disposable masks only once and then dispose of them.
  • Wear reusable masks once and then wash them before wearing them again.
  • Wash your hands before putting your mask on.
  • Avoid touching the mask once you’re wearing it.

How to Remove Your Mask

  1. Untie the mask strings or stretch the ear loops away from your face.
  2. Only handle the strings or ear loops.
  3. Fold the outside corners together.
  4. Place a reusable mask in a plastic bag for later washing. Dispose of disposable masks immediately.
  5. Wash your hands immediately after removing your mask. Be careful not to touch your face, nose, mouth, or eyes until you’ve washed your hands.

The Etiquette of a Smile

Greeting others with a smile is one of the most important basic rules of social etiquette, but wearing a traditional mask makes that difficult. Even the most exaggerated smile hides behind a typical cloth mask. One solution is to invest in SmileMask masks, which are fitted with a transparent non-fogging film over your entire mouth area. The SmileMask mask has fully adjustable ear loops, ear clips, and a nose clip to ensure the required close fit, but it leaves your mouth and lips fully visible, making it easier to communicate with a smile, or with words.


SmileMask is available in original, sport, or single-use versions, and can be ordered individually or in bulk orders. Reach out to learn more about special considerations and bulk orders.


Deb Powers is a freelance writer from Massachusetts.



Centers for Disease Control - Your Guide to Masks

AARP - The Four Rules of Face Mask Etiquette