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Here's how often you should really be cleaning your face masks

PSA: Wash your masks daily.

Cloth face masks sitting on by the sink, ready to be washed. Credit: Getty Images / Rike_

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With the emergence of COVID-19 variants like the delta variant—which is substantially more contagious than other variants—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is now recommending that Americans, regardless of vaccination status, go back to wearing masks indoors if in an area with high transmission levels. In addition, teachers, students, staff and visitors are also recommended to wear masks inside schools K-12.

While you may have already found the best mask option and mask cleaning routine for you, you may want to reassess your process in light of the recent surge, particularly if you're someone who has started to relax on proper mask care and cleaning (we get it—it's been quite a year).

It's important to keep up with regular cleaning of reusable face masks, for both your comfort and safety. According to experts like Dr. Cassandra Pierre, an infectious disease physician at Boston Medical Center, a dirty or "soiled" mask can reduce the efficacy of the mask itself. It can also become an irritant to your skin if it is harboring built-up bacteria.

Here is mask-cleaning guidance that will help keep you—and others—safe, from how to clean them to how often.

Before cleaning my mask, how should I safely remove it?

Mother wearing face mask helping daughter put on cloth face mask.
Credit: Getty Images / ti-ja

The CDC currently recommends wearing a face covering in public.

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 when handling your mask.

According to the CDC, you should first take off your mask by untieing the ties or stretching the ear loops off. Handle the mask only by its ear loops or ties. Once you’ve removed the mask, fold the outside corner together. From there, you can place your mask in something like a laundry bag or plastic baggie until you're ready to wash it. Once you’re finished, wash your hands.

What’s the best way to wash my mask?

Two cloth face masks sitting next to the sink.
Credit: Getty Images / Rike_

Cloth face masks can be washed by hand or in a washing machine

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 after every mask use.

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 high heat 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?

Cloth face masks laying on a drying rack.
Credit: Getty Images / kmatija

Cloth face masks can air dry after they're washed.

In terms of frequency, the CDC recommends washing your mask "whenever it gets dirty or at least daily". If you’re unsure about how dirty your mask is getting, 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.”

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