Temperatures in the United States have been soaring from coast to coast, and with summer coming into full swing, it's only going to get hotter. Even though social distancing measures in most places have been eased, guidelines on wearing masks while out in public to curb the spread of COVID-19 have remained the same.
Now that summer's here, as of June 20, and the weather could be even hotter than normal in some places -- let's face it: Wearing a mask will be even more uncomfortable than usual.
But the benefit of wearing a mask is crucial.
In a study published last week, researchers from Texas A&M University, the California Institute of Technology and the University of California San Diego, concluded "that wearing of face masks in public corresponds to the most effective means to prevent interhuman transmission."
U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams reminded Americans to continue to wearing masks, saying "some feel face coverings infringe on their freedom of choice -- but if more wear them, we'll have more freedom to go out." His message on Twitter came as confirmed cases were on the rise in some reopened states.
COVID-19 cases in the U.S. eclipsed 2.1 million as of mid-June, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. More than 117,000 have succumbed to COVID-19 in the U.S., which has suffered the highest coronavirus death toll in the world.
"Over the next 90 days, temperatures are expected to be running above average across the Northeast and from the interior Northwest through the Four Corners region and portions of the southern Plains," AccuWeather Meteorologist Danielle Knittle said.
Knittle said the Southeast through eastern Texas will be the area of the U.S. with the highest heat and humidity combined. In contrast, the northern Rockies into California will be hot but dry, with lower humidity.
The areas with high humidity could face more challenges than others when it comes to mask care and wearing them outdoors. The heat and humidity make it more difficult for some people to breathe while wearing a mask, the combination of weather factors could also lead to other health concerns.
But remember, if there's freedom in the face mask, like the surgeon general says, keep a few things in mind, and the whole experience will be a lot more bearable.
One notion to dispense with is that wearing a mask presents other dangers. Even though a mask may be uncomfortable, the World Health Organization (WHO) has said wearing one properly will not put someone at risk of carbon dioxide intoxication or oxygen deficiency.
Next, fabric matters.
Cotton is a more breathable option than other fabrics, but it can also absorb sweat, which could cause issues on hot and humid days. To work around this issue, it's a good idea to pack multiple masks for long outings -- especially on hot days. Bringing extra masks in a plastic baggy will keep them clean and dry, so you will have a fresh mask free from sweat when it's time to switch.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends tightly woven cotton for face masks to be made of such as quilting fabric or cotton sheets. However, a T-shirt made of cotton can also be used to make a protective face covering. Polyester and other synthetic fabric blends are harder to breathe through, which can cause the inside of the masks to heat up quickly, which will be uncomfortable when out in the hot sun.
Experts recommend wearing face coverings any time one could be exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the contagion that causes COVID-19. However, there are some outdoor activities that allow for more leeway around face coverings, as one expert pointed out.
Bryan Lewis, a research associate professor for the Biocomplexity Institute and Initiative in the University of Virginia, told AccuWeather's Bill Wadell that if people are in a setting where they could be exposing themselves to the virus, they should continue to wear a mask. For someone going on a jog alone outside, however, a mask may not needed as much, he said.
"As uncomfortable as it may be, I think if you're in a setting where you are getting a lot of exposure, it would be in your best interest to continue to wear a mask," Lewis said.
While cotton is a popular choice, it is not a perfect solution.
According to the CDC, N95 masks, which officials have urged people to reserve for medical professionals, filter out 95% of airborne particles, compared to one layer of cotton, which blocks about 40% of droplets. Scientists at the University of Illinois who tested different materials used to make masks found that by adding a second layer of T-shirt cotton, droplet blocking is much higher at 98%. For those planning to be active outdoors, cotton can absorb sweat, but there are other fabrics that are more absorbent.
A good alternative to cotton comes from a material that many may think of mainly as a wood. For people who will be wearing a mask while in extreme heat or while engaging in physical activity, a face covering made of bamboo fabric may be a smart choice.
Bamboo is 40% more absorbent than even the best organic cotton fabrics, according to The Miami Herald. Fabric made from bamboo can absorb up to three times its weight in liquid, meaning it will be ideal for situations where someone is sweating. Bamboo is also celebrated for its antibacterial properties, so it's less likely to develop an odor as well.
To avoid overheating in the hot sun, lighter colored masks are also a better fit. This is because ultraviolet rays from the sun are easily absorbed by materials made using darker colors, which will cause them to heat up faster.
It is also important to be able to recognize when a problem with breathing emerges. Dr. Richard Wenzel, a professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, told CNN that it is OK to briefly remove a mask if it is causing someone to struggle with breathing. Wenzel said that if you're going to remove a mask in a public setting, make sure to be at least 6 feet apart from others.
Besides blocking the particles in the air, Lewis, from the University of Virginia, said there is more value to wearing a mask, such as trapping moisture, avoiding touching mucus membranes, and the mask serving as a visual reminder for people to be cautious about doing seemingly ordinary things like shaking hands.
"What we are really in is a stage of trying to maintain and control. We all sacrificed a lot to get this outbreak under control. And now we all have a few different levers that we all need to sort of do at once to sort of maintain this control," Lewis said.
And what you do after wearing a mask is almost as important as wearing one.
According to CDC guidelines, cloth masks should be washed daily, and allowed time to dry fully before reuse. The CDC recommends that people thoroughly wash their hands or use sanitizer before putting on a mask and making sure face coverings fit snug to the face while still not restricting one's ability to breathe.
The best way to prevent germs from lingering between uses is to wash the mask after each use in hot water and dry on a high heat. If needed, masks can also be ironed as an additional way to kill germs.
And the hot, humid summer weather provides an atmosphere in which some types of germs can thrive. "That's usually a good combination [heat and humidity] for microbes to survive, so more frequent washing of masks or face coverings would likely need to be required," Knittle said.
No matter the mask, meteorologists say it is best to also avoid extended periods of time spent outside in order to avoid overheating. For those who must spend great amounts of time outdoors, these experts suggest taking frequent breaks in the shade. Spending time outdoors during the morning and evening hours and avoiding the hottest hours of the midday is recommended whenever possible. Staying hydrated and wearing light, loose-fitting clothing is critical to avoiding potential risks of heat exhaustion, or even heatstroke in extreme cases.
Reporting by Bill Wadell.