Masks, when combined with everyday preventive actions like hand washing and social distancing in public settings, have been shown to be effective to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Masks aren’t just magical solutions, though. They require proper use and upkeep — namely, cleaning — in order to be effective.
“The purpose of wearing a mask is primarily to catch your own respiratory droplet as they leave your mouth,” said Noah Nesin, vice president of the board of directors of the Maine Public Health Association. “From your own moisture, the mask will over time begin to smell bad. More importantly, the contaminants on the outside of the mask need to be cleaned every day.”
Masks should also be worn properly to avoid excess contamination.
“It’s probably not a good idea to have masks hanging from one ear or from your neck in between because now you’re getting the inside of the mask contamination,” Nesin said.
After wearing your mask out and about, it is important to always remove masks correctly, handling it only by the ear loops or ties, being careful not to touch your eyes, nose, and mouth when removing and washing your hands before and after handling the used mask.
“[That’s] not always possible because going in and out of your car — in those instances, having hand sanitizer makes a lot of sense,” Nesin said. “Avoid touching the outside surface of the mask especially. Put it in a place where it’s not going to be contaminated.”
Machine washing masks
Once your mask is off your face, you have to clean it. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there are several ways to do so effectively.
The first is in the washing machine. You can include your mask with your regular laundry. Use regular laundry detergent and the warmest appropriate water setting for the cloth used to make the mask.
“Hot water is better, but as long as there’s a detergent, there’s a soap involved, it will probably be fine,” Nesin said. “There’s no reason to think you have to wash this separately from other laundry. In fact, if you’ve been out in public, your clothing has been contaminated in a similar way that the mask has.”
After the cycle ends, you can also run cloth masks through the dryer. Use the highest heat setting and leave in the dryer until completely dry.
“If you’re sensitive to scents and use dryer sheets, you need to be aware that that might cause your nose to run or eyes to water,” Nesin noted. “Most people don’t use those products because they react the same way to their clothing.”
Hand washing masks
The other method to wash your mask is to do so by hand. The CDC recommends preparing a bleach solution by mixing five tablespoons household bleach per gallon of room temperature water, or four teaspoons household bleach per quart of room temperature water, but Nesin said that you can use any
“I think practically, it could be a laundry detergent — a bleach solution can be hard on your skin if you have sensitive skin,” Nesin said. “It can be soap and water. I think the important thing is to clean it with a substance that we know kills the virus.”
If you are using bleach, check the label to see if your bleach is intended for disinfection — some bleach products, such as those designed for safe use on colored clothing, may not be suitable for disinfection. Regular bleach safety also applies: wear gloves, ventilate the area, ensure the bleach product is not past its expiration date and n ever mix household bleach with ammonia or any other cleanser.
Soak the mask in your cleaning solution for five minutes, then rinse thoroughly with cool or room temperature water.
Then, pop the mask in the dryer, or lay flat and allow to completely air dry it. If possible, place the mask in direct sunlight.
“We know that ultraviolet light kills the virus, [but] ultraviolet light, doesn’t go through windows [because the] glass filters out ultraviolet light,” Nesin said. “If you really want the benefit of ultraviolet light, put it outdoors in sunlight.”
Nesin said not to worry too much if you don’t have time to air dry your mask, though.
“[It’s] an additional advantage but I don’t think it’s critical,” Nesin said. “[You can] allow it to air dry inside and feel assured about that.”
Caring for masks over time
Nesin said that regular washing and care will ensure the longevity of your mask over time.
“As with anything, keeping it clean, not leaving it in incredibly moist or hot environments where it’s likely to degrade [and] caring for it like you would any piece of clothing to maintain its longevity,” Nesin said.
You may also want to have multiple masks to prevent the need to clean every day.
“If [you’re] in public on a regular basis and need a mask on a daily basis and if [you] don’t have the time to wash and dry on a daily basis, then more masks is better,” Nesin said.
This is especially true for children as the school year is beginning.
“It’s recommended for kids to have a mask for each day of the week,” Nesin said. “[There’s enough] to accomplish day to day with kids in normal circumstances. Having masks for each day of the week helps to alleviate that little piece of it.”