Cleaning Masks During COVID-19: When It's Safe & How To Do It

mbg Senior Sustainability Editor By Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care."
Person Wearing Face Mask During Coronavirus

Image by Isaiah & Taylor Photography / Stocksy

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The coronavirus has forced us to pick up many new skills: Zoom, hair cutting and coloring, and eyeballing 6-foot distances are all things we've had to learn to do to keep up with the times. But perhaps no lesson has been as important as the one we're getting on face masks.

States around the country are now requesting (and in some cases, demanding) that people wear masks in public areas where social distancing isn't possible. If you're an essential worker or someone who needs to leave the house most days, you might be wondering how extensive your mask supply needs to be. Should you stock up on a ton of masks, or is reusing them ever OK? Here are the latest guidelines on when it's safe to clean and reuse a mask and how to do so effectively:

Is it ever OK to reuse a mask?

The answer depends on the type of mask you're talking about. Take N95 respirator mask: This is a piece of personal protective equipment (PPE) that was created to shield people from outside germs in a hospital setting. It is designed to be worn once and then thrown away, and made from a blend of materials that can be difficult to clean. This is a major reason why we should reserve N95s for hospital workers who need them: This essential piece of equipment is in high demand and low supply around the world right now. While emerging research is finding that N95s can be decontaminated and reused two to three times using methods like UV light, dry heat, and vaporized hydrogen peroxide, trying to so from home is not recommended.

Cloth masks, on the other hand, shield other people from your germs. If you have the virus but are not showing symptoms, wearing a cloth mask in public can help keep you from spreading it. Whether your cloth mask is homespun or store-bought, chances are it's made from a single material that's relatively easy to wash. For these reasons, reusing and cleaning this type of mask is much less risky—for you and those you come in contact with.

While surgical masks fall into the same category as cloth masks, because of their flimsy material they should be used once and then thrown away.

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What's the best way to clean and disinfect a cloth mask?

As for how often you should be cleaning your cloth mask, the CDC says it depends on the frequency of use. To be safe, consider washing yours after every use, especially if you live in a high-risk area. If you don't want to do a load of washing every day, you can buy or make a few more masks (they're pretty easy to put together) and keep your used ones in an enclosed baggie until you have time to clean them. You can launder them with the rest of your clothes; Just make sure the water is hot and you're using detergent. No laundry machine? Here's how to wash clothes the old-fashioned way.

Be careful whenever you're taking a mask off since you don't want its germs to spread around the house. Undo the mask from its ear loops and gently lift and remove, then immediately wash it or place it in a bag. Wash and dry your hands thoroughly afterward.

Last but not least, don't forget that wearing a mask is just one part of the equation: Practicing social distancing, keeping your hands away from your face, and following the latest CDC recommendations are all essential ways to keep yourself and your community safe.

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