Now that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended wearing face masks to prevent the transmission of COVID-19, and with disposable masks in short supply, it's important to know how to handle and clean reusable cloth masks correctly.
We spoke with Tania Elliott MD, an immunologist and national spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology who reiterated the importance of covering your face in public. "Many people can be asymptomatic carriers of the virus, so you may have it and be spreading it without even knowing," she said. "Therefore, wearing a mask protects others in the event that you sneeze or cough while you're talking and respiratory particles are transmitted into the air." Dr. Elliott added, "A mask should be worn whenever you cannot be more than six feet apart from people."
Can I clean my face mask at home?
Disposable masks made from non-woven fibers, KN95, and N95 masks cannot be safely cleaned at home. Exposure to excessive amounts of water and cleaning products will destroy the fibers and can damage the carbon filtration systems of N95 respirators.
KN95 or N95 masks should be reserved for medical workers, but if you have one, know that they can be worn up to five times by the same person, according to the CDC. There are exceptions if the mask is used in certain medical procedures, damaged, or heavily soiled.
Because of supply chain shortages, researchers have had to figure out if and how N95 masks can be sanitized for reuse. Researchers at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign found that 50 minutes of dry heat in an electric cooker such as an InstantPot can kill four types of viruses on N95 respirators, including a coronavirus. After preheating the cooker for five minutes until it reaches 347 °F, use a towel in the pot to line the interior and then place your mask on top for 50 minutes.
N95 mask inventor Dr. Peter Tsai and scientists at the University of Tennessee are also studying the effectiveness of using ultraviolet-C (UV-C) light as a disinfectant. However, no procedures for cleaning these masks at home have been approved.Fabric face masks, on the other hand, can and should be washed at home. They can be reused until they're torn or no longer fit the face of the wearer.
How to wear and remove a face mask correctly
Before you put on a face mask, wash your hands with soap or use hand sanitizer. Identify the exterior and interior sides of the mask. Always be sure to place the interior surface next to your skin. The mask should be worn tightly against the face and cover both your nose and mouth. Try not to touch the mask while you are wearing it.
When it is time to remove the mask, slip the elastic bands from your ears, or untie the strings. Do not grab the front of the mask to remove it from your face. Using the strings or elastic bands, place the mask directly in a paper bag for disposal, or to hold it until you're ready to wash or wear it.
Wash your hands again.