When Masks Are a Pain in the Arse – or Ears

Saving your ears while saving the world

By Kitty

UPDATE (Nov 2020): A lot of changes and new knowledge have come to light since this blog was written.  Some of this content is still accurate, but some of it may have become obsolete.  Please read the more recent mask-related blogs for up-to-date information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and mask-related issues.

“But masks hurt my ears!”

This seems to be the most common complaint we hear against the wearing of the face mask, our humble yet most valiant ally against the community spread of COVID-19. 

And yes, it’s true.  Ear elastics on masks do start to hurt after you’ve worn them for a while.  Some kinds of elastic take longer to start hurting than others, and some people have more sensitive ears.  But wear them long enough, and everyone’s ears get sore eventually.

Sometimes, it’s easiest to start a blog post with a photo or two:

Masks Can Help Save the World (but sore ears aren’t fun)

There’s no guarantee that we’ll have an fully effective coronavirus vaccine anytime soon.  Right now, one of the simplest and most useful things each one of us can do is to wear a face mask every single time we are in the company of other people. 

If everyone wore masks that fit correctly *and* followed all the safe use recommendations (there’s a summary of most of those here), we could stop the pandemic in its tracks, with or without a vaccine. But it’s really, really hard to get us humans to do something that hurts, even if “most everyone” agrees that it’s universally beneficial — otherwise, we would all lift weights and do high-intensity cardio five times a week.

Saving the World vs. Saving Your Ears

It’s easy for me to say we should wear masks whenever we’re in public.  I only need to pop one on for two minutes while I run into the shops for eggs and tea. 

But if your job involves interacting with other humans for an eight-hour shift, your trusty face mask becomes much more of a serious pain in the arse.   Or rather, ears.  Some of you have told  horror stories of bruised, chafed, or bleeding ears, even infected pressure sores.  Eeek.

You might feel tempted to pull it off during your coffee break just for a bit of blessed ear relief, but technically, that means you should put that mask in the “dirty” pile and replace it with a freshly laundered, unworn mask.  Safety guidelines say you should treat all masks as contaminated once they’ve been worn and handled, but are you *really* going to take four or five masks to work every day? 

Quite apart from that, you’ll probably find that a brief respite doesn’t actually help all that much with the sore ears problem.  Your ears will just start hurting again in a minute or two, because it takes longer than a brief break for the pressure spots to recover. 

Worse yet, wearing a mask day after day after day can make those spots progressively more painful over time.  And if you do have active chafing, sores or bruises, it’s a terrible idea to place elastics over that area, since you could introduce infection.

What You Can Do About It (some options that are already out there)

#1 – Ties instead of elastics

When some of you first brought this problem to my attention, we started offering ties that go behind the head instead or elastics that hook on your ears.  This works just fine for lots of people, but has drawbacks for others.

PROS: Ties don’t pull on your ears, and are adjustable to just the tightness you like. 

CONS: The upper ties can chafe the top of the ear area, because they still need to sit at ear level.  Some people find it too fiddly to get the ties done up.  Others have mobility or coordination issues that make it downright impossible to tie a bow at all, never mind behind the head.  Bow knots can slip or lose tension over time.  This one only happens to some people because there’s more than one way to tie a bow knot, but if it does happen to you, you have to re-tie the mask or face a safety hazard if you have touch the mask to push it up your face.  Personally, I can’t seem to do ties without painfully catching my hair in the knots.

#2 – Those plastic mask holder thingies, and improvised alternatives

You know, those little gadgets that hold the elastics behind your head.  You *must* of course remember to sanitize them every single day after removing your mask.  You can even use a plain hair clip, shoelace, S-hook, or ribbon as an improvised mask holder, like these:

PROS: They actually work really well for some people with the right ear shape and angle, particularly for those whose ears sit low on their heads relative to their nose.  If mask holders work for you, hooray!  Your sore ear issues are solved.

CONS:  If your ears join your head at a higher point, mask holders will only help a little bit, or not at all, because the elastic will still be resting/rubbing on the top of your ear where it attaches to your head.  I personally fall into this category.  If the back of your head sticks out significantly more on the top half than on the bottom half, mask holders can cause your mask to creep down your face, because now you only have a single point of pull instead of two.  Your head isn’t symmetrical, so the whole thing slides down toward the smaller half.  Basically,  if using a mask holder doesn’t make your mask stay put over time, it’s not for you. 

#3 – Hats or headbands with buttons, or special hairstyles to hold the elastic

Sorry, I’m not making headgear just to get a picture, because I’d like to get this blog posted sometime this week.  Though I’m not ruling out trying them for fun sometime.  And I do not have enough hair to show the hairstyle option.  There are loads of photos on the internet if you want to see what these look like. 

PROS: If your workplace or your personal style allows you to wear headbands/ball caps/surgical head-covers with buttons on them every day, *and* if you get the height and angle of the button placement customized so it’s just right for you,  these can keep the elastic quite clear of your ears.  If you have enough hair to create Princess Leia space buns on the sides of your head (you hook or pin the elastic onto the buns instead of your ears), lucky you — you’re more blessed than many of us. 

CONS: If headbands/hats/head coverings are just not for you, this category is right out.  It’s probably hard to make these work with a suit and tie, say, or if you work at a funeral home.  If you have short, fine or no hair, obviously the space buns option is a no-go.  You still need to sanitize any headgear after every use, so you’d need one for each day of the week you don’t do laundry, in addition to masks — that’s a lot of hats.  If you tend to get hot easily, anything that covers part of your head can build up heat uncomfortably fast.

#4 – Elastics that go behind the head

PROS: This kind of elastic doesn’t pull your ears forward.  There’s a separate point of pull for the top and bottom halves of your head, so masks tend to stay in place better than if you used a mask holder.  It’s relatively easy to customize the tightness by tying a knot or using a slider.

CONS: the upper elastic can still rest on and rub your ears, depending on their shape and placement.  Some people find that this kind of elastic causes even worse chafing than the kind that loops around the ears, because it slides around more with the motion of your head through the day (around-the-head elastics move against your skin when you tilt or turn your head, look up/down, or nod).

So…Velcro (aka my current solution to the ouchy ear problem)

Technically, I should say “hook and loop tape.” But we all know I mean off-brand Velcro.

After a good deal of experimentation, I’m presently voting for a weird combination: the upper part of the mask fastened with flat straps and Velcro, and the lower part with a soft elastic. 

You can close the straps at any height that feels comfortable to you.  The position can vary a lot depending on the shape of your head and the placement of your ears, and whether you want the straps to sit well above your ears or pass over them — just don’t let them rest *on* your ears like ear loops to avoid soreness.

Why Velcro?  Several reasons:

  1. It’s easy to use.  Most people (the butter-fingered, the arthritic, those of the child persuasion, etc) find it relatively manageable.
  2. It’s adjustable.  If we use a generous length of Velcro, you can adjust the fit of the straps by a couple of inches.  This ability to customize the tightness should keep the mask securely in place without you needing to push it up or down, which is an important safety feature.  I sound like a broken record, but you really, really shouldn’t touch your mask while you’re wearing it!
  3. It doesn’t slip.  You’re not going to find your Velcro-locked mask slowly getting looser and sliding down over the course of your day, the way you might with a tied knot.

Why not Velcro and straps on the bottom too?

As for the bottom elastic, it’s more comfortable than Velcro against the sensitive skin on the nape of your neck (especially if you prefer to have it under your hair, or if you have short hair).  Since it’s not resting or exerting any pressure on your ears at this level of the mask, a nice soft elastic definitely feels nicer here. 

Also, non-elastic straps against the back of your neck can actually be restrictive enough to make your muscles tense up reflexively.  This can lead to headaches and shoulder or neck pain.  They can also dig in or chafe, which kind of defeats the point of this whole exercise.

I was somewhat surprised to find that you don’t need Velcro, or a lot of adjustability, at the bottom level of the mask.  The customizable, super-secure fit of the upper strap hold the mask in place pretty well all by itself, even without the lower elastic strap.  The elastic is pretty much just insurance.

In Conclusion

Would I use this strap/elastic combo on my own masks?  Well, it takes a LOT more time and materials to construct this contraption than it does to sew on a couple of lengths of elastic.  So realistically, I probably won’t bother with it for my normal life; as I mentioned, I never really go out except for super-brief nips into the shops once or twice a week.

However, … if I was going to be in any situation where I might need to wear a mask for hours instead of five minutes — such classes, a real job, or Disneyland — I would absolutely go to the trouble of making myself a strap-and-Velcro mask.  Ear elastics start to hurt my ears after twenty minutes or so, and I don’t think I want to find out what they would feel like after eight hours, never mind day after day.

I did test out my sample Anteater mask with Velcro straps by wearing it for several hours.  I lugged bolts of fabric around.  I bent over.  I even repeatedly took off and put on a high-necked T-shirt, which I was in the process of fitting.

And I kind of forgot I was wearing a mask!  Absolutely no ear discomfort whatsoever.  I was actually shocked at how securely the straps held the mask in place.  Normally, *everything* (including every hairpin and headband known to humankind) slides helplessly down my Teflon-coated Asian hair.  Maybe Velcro is magic, or I just have a good skull shape for this.

As per usual, we’re planning to throw the Velcro strap-and-elastic “ear saver” option on our masks website for those of you who have found none of the other alternatives satisfactory.  As with those all options, this will work for some of us and not for others — but each additional person who can wear masks without pain has got to be a win, right?

P.S.: If you want or need to try masks with the “ear saver” straps before we get it loaded onto our website, just contact us directly and we’ll see what we can do.

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