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Face masks have become the norm in our brave new world of social distancing. While the CDC recommends reserving disposable surgical and N95 masks for healthcare workers and medical first responders, the rest of us have adapted to buying fit-friendly cloth face masks or making our own.
If you’re opting for a reusable face mask, it is crucial to keep up with a proper cleaning routine, considering that COVID-19 can potentially live on cloth surfaces for days at a time. So, how often, exactly, should you be washing cloth masks and coverings, and should you wash them by hand or in your washing machine?
Here are the cleaning details that will help keep you safe.
Before cleaning my mask, how should I safely remove it?
Prior to washing your face mask, you’ll want to focus on properly removing the mask itself to minimize potential exposure to virus particles. Any part of the mask covering could be contaminated, so be sure not to touch your eyes, mouth, nose, or any other surfaces in this process.
Wash your hands. Then, take off the mask from the furthest point from your mouth. Use the ear loops or the ties behind your head. Once you’ve removed the mask, place it in a sealed container or immediately into the sink or washing machine.
Once you’re finished, wash your hands again.
If you need to take off your face mask before you get home, you can place it in a paper bag or even a plastic container. “You’ll want to have a safe place to store it that won’t cause contamination,” says Dr. Cassandra Pierre, an infectious disease physician at Boston Medical Center.
What’s the best way to wash my mask?
As simple as it sounds, washing your cloth masks with soap and water does the job in getting them clean.
“Warm water and any detergent you’re used to using at home should work great,” says Dr. Gabriela Andujar Vazquez, an infectious disease physician and associate hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center.
Cloth face masks can be hand-washed or tossed in a washer and dryer, depending on what you prefer or feel is most convenient. Andujar Vazquez recommends hand-washing, as you may not be doing your regular laundry every time you use your mask.
As for drying your cloth mask, it is completely fine to let it air-dry. Although, if you prefer extra precautions, using a dryer on a hot heat setting can help to kill any potential residual particles.
Like any other fabric, cloth masks can begin to break down with repeated use and washing. Be sure to keep an eye out for any fraying or wear of the material, as this can degrade the quality of the protective layer.
How often should I wash my mask?
In terms of frequency, the CDC recommends “routinely washing” your mask, depending on the number of times you use it. This leaves room for interpretation as to how frequent is frequent enough.
If you’re unsure when it’s time to wash your cloth mask, your safest bet is to wash it after every use.
“My recommendation would be to wash your mask every day,” Pierre tells us. “If you’re using it and going out to run errands, you run the risk of having droplets collect on the surface of the mask.”
That being said, if you feel like you could have been directly exposed to the virus—like someone coughing or sneezing on or near you—you’ll want to take extra precaution.
“If you’ve been out on the subway, for example, and someone sneezes on you, you might want to peel off that mask into a plastic bag when you arrive at your destination,” says Pierre. “It’s a higher likelihood that it could be contaminated and you don’t want to wait until the end of the day to wash it.”