As we continue to adjust to the “new normal” surrounding the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, we’ve been asking ourselves a lot of questions that probably would have never crossed our minds before. Pondering things like “how to make a DIY face mask” used to be reserved for at-home spa treatments instead of cloth face coverings. Now, we’re all trying our best to follow the CDC’s recommendation to protect ourselves with a mask every time we leave the house.
Of course, that leads to another round of questions: Do we need to wash our face masks? How often? And what’s the best way to know the masks are really getting sanitized?
The first answer is yes, we need to wash our masks after every use to make sure they aren’t harboring any nasty surprises. The good news is that you can just toss cloth masks in the washing machine, even with other clothing items, and the combination of regular laundry soap and heat will zap away germs. You should let them air dry if they have elastic, but fully cloth ones can go right into the dryer.
Linsey Marr, PhD, a scientist at the University of Virginia, has been studying the best ways to extend the life of medical masks. She reminded the New York Times that viruses cannot grow outside of the body, so any that have collected on a mask will be stuck there and eliminated with a simple wash.
“I throw my cloth mask in the washing machine with the rest of the laundry and dry it on low heat,” Dr. Marr explained. “I would avoid bleach because it can degrade the fibers. The important thing is to avoid damaging the fibers in the mask.”
For those of us who don’t have laundry units in our homes, hand washing the masks in hot water with regular laundry detergent will still get the job done. Purvi Parikh, MD, an allergist and immunologist, told Glamour that she recommends soaking the masks for up to 30 minutes in soap and hot water, then rinsing them and letting them air dry. Popular Science also lists letting the mask sit in a pot of boiling water for five minutes, but again, that can cause the fabric to deteriorate quicker.
If you want to really make sure you’re killing any lingering bacteria or viruses, you can give dried masks a run over with a piping hot iron. You can also use a hair dryer if you want to speed the drying process and blast it with some extra germ-killing heat.
Keep in mind that like any other piece of clothing, the fabric of masks will deteriorate over time with washing and become less effective — another reason we should be limiting our time outside our homes. If you’re going out less, you’re wearing the mask and washing it less, which will make it last longer for more essential trips.
If you have a surgical mask rather than one made with fabric, they are not normally supposed to be used more than once. But the CDC is now saying they can be worn multiple times if you store them in a paper bag in-between uses for 72 hours.
That said, you should consider donating these medical-grade masks to healthcare professionals. Many hospitals have reported protective gear shortages, and those on the frontlines treating patients are the ones who really need them.
We can all get through this strange time together with a little extra care and precaution!