For better or worse, face masks are part of your everyday carry for trips to the grocery store and other errands now, and many people are still getting used to them. For instance, what are you supposed to do with the thing once you get home? Here's how to wash your face mask after using it, because there are some definite dos and don'ts in this realm. Thankfully, caring for and sanitizing your face mask is super simple.
First, though, consider the reason so many people are wearing face masks in public during this phase of the quarantine. "The rationale for covering your face is primarily to contain your own respiratory secretions when you cough, sneeze, have a runny nose, or breathe heavily, so that if you are an asymptomatic carrier or in the early stages of infection, you don’t infect someone else," Dr. Georgine Nanos, M.D., MPH, tells Romper.
Basically, it's a way to keep your germs (and hopefully viruses) to yourself. "When someone wears a face mask, they are protecting you from them," as Dr. Erum Ilyas, M.D., tells Romper. "It works ideally from a community perspective when all are wearing them since we are all protecting each other from ourselves."
In this light, wearing a face mask is an act of tremendous kindness and consideration for others with very real outcomes. "We are talking lives here. We need to limit the spread of the disease. You wearing a mask saves lives. You’re a hero if you wear a mask and perform social distancing," Dr. Shannon Sovndal, M.D., tells Romper. "Be a hero!"
However, helping prevent the spread of COVID-19 also means cleaning the mask regularly, something that wasn't necessarily a big concern for many people before the outbreak. In other words, researchers and medical professionals are still figuring it out, too. "Sterilizing masks is an area of active research, and there are no definitive conclusions yet," Dr. Anthony Kaveh, M.D., tells Romper. However, medical professionals and mask manufacturers have some best practices to share, as well as info on the ways you should never clean a face mask.
Hand-Washing Works, Too
If you don't have easy access to a washing machine each day, then hand-washing the mask is also effective. "Washing either by hand with antibacterial soap or in the washing machine with laundry detergent is fine, but the key is to use the hot water as viruses cannot live when exposed to hot water," says Ilyas.
Use Plenty Of Detergent Or Soap
Make a lot of lather when washing your mask. "Most viruses denature at 140° F," says Sovndal. "Most water heaters in residences don’t go that high. Rather than try to adjust your water temperature, just make sure you use detergent to aid in the cleaning."
The stove top is another option. "You can also simply boil cloth masks for 5 to 10 minutes," says Sovndal. Plus, you get to turn a regular old pasta pot into a coronavirus-killing cauldron for a few minutes, which is kind of cool.
Don't Totally Rely On Sunlight
As it turns out, sunlight is not necessarily the best disinfectant, at least when it comes to killing a virus. Sure, the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays are a beast, and researchers may use a specific wavelength of UV light, known as UV-C, to reduce the transmission COVID-19, according to the International Ultraviolet Association (IUVA). But this doesn't mean sunlight is the cure-all for your homemade mask.
"Sunlight is not a replacement for a UV-C light," as Shaun Veran, co-founder of OURA, a manufacturer of reusable, antimicrobial, medical-grade masks, tells Romper. "The light has to be at a specific wavelength, 265nm, in order to inactivate the virus," says Veran, adding that using UV-C light requires properly calibrated, specific instrumentation. Because the weather is so variable, it's best to use soap and water for your mask's sanitizing needs. (Allowing your mask to air-dry in the sunshine after a proper wash is fine, though.)
Avoid Sprays & Other Cleaners
If you're tempted to give the mask a pass with sanitizing spray and wear it again, experts definitely caution against this idea. "While disinfecting masks is not officially recommended, spraying or wiping masks with disinfectants poses a serious harm to the mask wearer," says Kaveh. "Disinfecting products contain many known toxic chemicals that should not come in contact with human skin or mucosal membranes. Minor reactions may involve only skin irritation, but more severe reactions are absolutely possible, including asthmatic reactions, and over the long-term, other potentially serious medical conditions." In general, it's a much safer choice to wash your mask with soap and water, instead of trying to clean it with something like ethanol, rubbing alcohol, or a commercial cleaner.
Reconsider Cleaning & Reusing A Disposable Mask
For the most part, it's safest to avoid reusing a disposable face mask. First, the material wasn't made to be durable enough for multiple wears. "Disposable masks like single-use N95 respirators and surgical masks were never designed to be reused. They should be thrown out after each use," says Veran. Plus, it's difficult to effectively clean a single-use mask. "Other masks will probably need to be discarded and the end of every day if they can't be washed since most other materials probably fall apart with aggressive disinfection," says Nanos.
And think twice before sticking a papery mask into your oven or microwave to sanitize it. "Microwaving the mask melts the material. Baking and steaming may kill off the virus on the mask if the heat is high enough. However, the high heat will also destroy the electrostatic charge on these masks," decreasing their ability to filter properly, as Veran explains. It looks like washable, reusable cloth masks are generally preferable.
If you only have a disposable mask on hand, consider making a DIY face mask at home from a tea towel or antimicrobial pillowcase, as detailed in Bustle. It will stand up to the necessary laundering. If ready-made is more your style, then it's possible to buy face masks for the whole family from plenty of different sellers, according to Romper. Although it may still feel a bit weird to go out in public without the use of your facial expressions, wearing an easy-to-clean cloth face mask in public is one way to help slow the transmission of COVID-19 in your community.
Anthony Kaveh, M.D., Stanford and Harvard trained physician anesthesiologist and integrative medicine specialist
Shannon Sovndal, M.D., author of "Fragile: Beauty in Chaos, Grace in Tragedy, and Hope that Lives In Between", board-certified doctor in both emergency medicine and emergency medical services (EMS), and physician and medical director for multiple EMS agencies and fire departments
Shaun Veran, co-founder of OURA, a manufacturer of reusable, antimicrobial, medical-grade masks (ASTM Level 1 Surgical Masks)
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