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How To Thoroughly Hand-Wash A Mask: An Ecotoxicologist Weighs In

Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor By Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor
Emma Loewe is the Senior Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us."
Hand Washing Your Mask? This Extra Step Could Help Sanitize It

Our hands aren't the only things that should be getting a diligent wash these days. The CDC recommends washing cloth face masks after every use, too. Tossing masks into the laundry machine (after removing them carefully and avoiding contact with eyes, nose, and mouth, of course) is one of the easiest way to do so. If you have a machine, the CDC says you can wash masks in the same load as dirty clothes on a warm water setting.

Now that we're months into the pandemic, you may find that your masks are starting to show signs of wear and tear after all that thrashing around in a hot machine. That's why Dimitri Deheyn, Ph.D., a marine biology and ecotoxicology researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, opts to hand-wash his masks instead.

A hand-washing and sanitizing method that utilizes steam.

After spending years studying how microplastics shed from synthetic fabrics in the washing machine, Deheyn is a strong proponent of the good ole hand-wash—both for its environmental benefits and, more relevantly in the case of COVID, its gentleness on fabrics.

"As you shake them and wash them, the fibers will naturally stretch" Deheyn tells mbg of how cloth face masks can fare in a machine over time. The extent to which the fabric will stretch and shed in the wash largely depends on the material, says Yuly Fuentes, PhD, the program manager of fiber technologies at MIT.

While the CDC has not voiced concern that washing machines negate the effectiveness of cloth masks at all, Deheyn opts to take the cautious root and wash his by hand instead. Here's his routine:

  1. First, he lets his mask sit in a bath of warm water and detergent for a few minutes before scrubbing it thoroughly (Johns Hopkins Medicine recommends doing so for at least 20 seconds) and rinsing with warm water.
  2. Then comes the unconventional step: He holds his mask above a pot of boiling water for 30 seconds, allowing the steam to further sanitize it. Research on pre-COVID flu strains found that they are killed in temperatures above 167°F, so the thought is that this step should help remove anything that didn't come off in the soaking phase.
  3. Finally, Deheyn will let his mask air-dry.

It's important to note that many different types of fabrics are used in cloth masks (Fuentes points out that even the catchall term "cotton" can encompass a variety of different weaves), so you'll also want to some research on what material your mask is made from before you decide on a laundering routine. And again, the most crucial thing is that you're wearing a mask in the first place, and washing it regularly.

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The bottom line.

If you don't own a washing machine or are trying to save energy at home, hand washing can be an effective way to clean some cloth masks—especially when you let things get a little steamy. Just remember to dry your mask out completely before wearing it again, and always wash your hands after handling a used mask.

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