The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend wearing cloth face coverings to slow the spread of coronavirus, but some people are still finding masks to be in short supply. For those who do have access to disposable masks, there's a frequent question: Can disposable masks like N95 and surgical masks be re-worn?
In short? Yes, but only if you take care of them correctly.
"Number one: Don't touch your mask," said Dr. Lucian Davis, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health who studies respiratory infections and noted that touching the mask could transfer virus particles onto the surface. "If you do touch your mask, wash [your hands] with soap and water or with alcohol for sure. If you need to remove it, do it in a safe place where you're not close to others."
How to safely remove, clean and store a disposable mask
To safely remove your mask and touch as little of its surface as possible, use the ear straps to remove and handle the mask. Davis said it's likely that the majority of virus particles would be on the front, so avoid touching that part of the mask.
Once the disposable mask is safely removed, place it in a convenient but safe storage spot. Jade Flinn, MSN, the nurse educator for the Biocontainment Unit at Johns Hopkins Medicine, said that she and other coworkers were placing masks in paper bags or other "clean receptacles" with "good ventilation" that allow the mask to "air out." Davis said that he had seen the same.
"Many of us are just using those brown paper sacks that we used to take our lunch to work in," he said. "Those have some structure to them, and you can drop it in and close it up."
Davis also recommended using a plastic Tupperware or Ziploc bag, but emphasized the need to not touch the edges of the bag. Rather than trying to clean a disposable mask, Flinn and Davis both recommended just leaving it in a clean, contained environment for a few days.
"We aren't disinfecting or cleaning these types of materials because, particularly if you're using a disinfectant, then you're kind of putting it into the fabric, and then breathing it in," Flinn said. "So I wouldn't do that. ... You're better off just putting it in a clean receptacle and letting it stay there for a day or two."
"There are processes in hospitals for cleaning masks, but typically they involve different types of gases and special machines there, and they won't be available in the communities," Davis said. "...Based on what we know about how long the virus can live on cardboard, which is similar material to paper, one would think that in 24 to 48 hours, those viruses would no longer be viable."
Both Flinn and Davis said that if a mask is visibly dirty, soiled or torn, it should be thrown out immediately. Both recommended having a supply of at least three to five masks, so that one could be worn while others were being decontaminated.
"We have a limited supply of masks, so it makes sense that people are going to want to reuse them," Davis said. "Just make sure to do it safely."