More than 30 states have now mandated the wearing of face masks or coverings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The detailed requirements and penalties for non-compliance may vary according to your location, but if you live in one of those states it’s safe to assume that you need to be wearing a mask anytime you enter a store, restaurant or bar, or use public transport.
You may even have to wear one outdoors in public spaces when social distancing is impractical.
Why A Reusable Mask is the Best Option for Most People
But with a huge variety of masks now available, how do you decide which one to choose.
Surgical grade masks, as you might expect, offer the highest level of protection, but they are difficult for the general public to come by. And the government Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agency (CDC) recommends that the limited supplies of this equipment should be reserved for the use of medical professionals and other first responders.
Single-use, disposable, masks have become readily available since the onset of the pandemic. But these will be a relatively expensive solution for people who need to leave their homes regularly.
So, for most people, a reusable mask is going to be by far the most convenient and cost-effective option.
While they’re by no means perfect, properly fitted and maintained cloth masks do offer both wearers and the people around them a significant degree of protection.
Why You Should Wash Your Mask After Every Use
Keeping masks clean, though, is key to preserving their effectiveness. Studies have shown that the coronavirus can survive on certain surfaces for as long as 72 hours. And a used mask, warm and moist from the breath of the wearer, is an ideal environment, not just for corona, but for colds, flu and all sorts of other germs to flourish.
So we out below some tips for washing, drying and caring for your mask.
1. Thoroughly Inspect Your Mask after Each Use
Coughing, sneezing, talking or even just breathing, our mouths and noses are constantly emitting a stream of tiny moisture droplets, any one of which may contain infectious quantities of the microscopic coronavirus.
Cloth masks are designed to restrict the spread of the virus by acting as a barrier to these droplets. And so, as obvious as it may sound, the first priority is to ensure after each use that there are no holes or tears in the material. It’s also important to check that the straps still allow the cloth to fit snugly and securely over your mouth and nose without slippage.
2. Carefully Check the Manufacturer’s Label
Of course, it’s only common sense to check the manufacturer’s recommendations before washing any item of clothing. But it’s perhaps particularly important when it comes to reusable face masks.
The Emergency Use Authorization for Face Masks published by the FDA on 24 April 2020 includes labeling requirements for masks supplied to the public with the intention of restricting the spread of moisture droplets from mouths and noses.
Labels must now include recommendations for safe and correct cleaning and, where appropriate, disinfection.
3. Use a HighTemperature Wash
Subject to the manufacturer’s recommendations and the type of cloth, it’s generally wise to wash masks at the highest possible temperature.
A hot machine wash will work fine in most cases, but for maximum safety an old-fashioned boil wash is a very simple and effective alternative. 10 minutes is enough to kill 99.99% of all viruses and bacteria, but be sure to check that the cloth and fittings of the mask will stand up to this temperature.
4. Use a Fabric Safe Disinfectant
A good quality laundry detergent is a minimum requirement for thorough cleaning. But for the very best results it’s also advisable to add a fabric safe disinfectant.
Brand name phenolic disinfectants are generally safe to use with all fabrics, including whites and coloreds, and can be added to any temperature rinse cycle. It’s always important, though, to follow the guidance on the product label.
A good alternative is to use one of the various pine oil based products now available. These are also color safe, but need to be added at the beginning of the wash cycle. For best results, look for a product containing at least 80 % pine oil.
5. Wash With White Vinegar and Baking Soda
A safe, natural and very cost-effective alternative to these products is to add a combination of white vinegar and baking/washing soda, with or without detergent, at the start of each wash.
Not only does this make for an extra powerful cleaning agent, it also has excellent disinfectant properties.
6. Double Rinse before Reusing
Vinegar also has the added benefit of helping to remove detergent and other chemical residues that may cause irritation to the skin, nose or throat.
For safety, it’s nevertheless recommended to run your face mask through an extra rinse cycle before drying.
7. Avoid Bleach
But no matter how many times you rinse, it’s difficult to get rid of all traces of bleach.
And residual odors and even lingering traces of chlorine gas may cause considerable discomfort and irritation to the respiratory system and eyes of the wearer.
So although it is of course a powerful cleaning and disinfecting agent, bleach should not generally be used for washing masks.
How to Dry a Washable Mask
Unfortunately, however thoroughly you have washed your mask, upon its emergence from the washing machine or hand wash bowl, warm and moist, it immediately becomes an inviting potential home for new colonies of virus.
It’s therefore crucial that masks are thoroughly dried and carefully stored before use.
8. Dry on High Heat
If you have access to a dryer, dry your mask or masks immediately on your device’s highest heat setting, subject, of course, to the mask manufacturer’s label instructions.
9. Dry in Direct Sunlight
As an alternative, climate and weather permitting, it’s also a great idea to dry your mask in strong direct sunlight, an agent that viruses hate, and which is believed to be a powerful natural disinfectant.
10. Store Your Mask in Airtight Containers
Thoroughly clean and dry as they now are, your masks remain surfaces that may be contaminated like any other. It’s therefore imperative that they should be immediately placed in secure storage until required for use. Freezer bags or plastic tubs are ideal for this purpose; paper bags an acceptable alternative.
A Final Note of Caution
But however carefully you follow all these steps, it’s important to realize that most fabrics are likely to deteriorate over time. And the more often you wear a mask - and the more wash, rinse and dry cycles you put it through - the faster this process will happen, and the less effective your mask will become.
And whether you’re using a cotton mask or one made of a polypropylene type material, it’s unfortunately impossible to say how long it will last before a significant degradation of its water resistance properties.
A visual inspection for obvious defects is the minimum safety requirement before each use. But it’s also important to check for breathability and water retention. Oddly enough, the more comfortable and breathable your mask becomes, the less well it is probably performing.
Carefully following the above guidelines on washing and drying will considerably prolong the useful life of any washable mask.
But the bottom line is that you will nevertheless need to regularly replace your mask. And it’s also wise to maintain a stock in case of loss or unexpected damage.