Face masks have become as much of a necessity when you leave the house as your keys and wallet. But because this piece of fabric covers your nose and mouth every time you put it on, it's crucial that you clean it properly. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), your face mask “should be routinely washed depending on the frequency of use.”
So what exactly does "routinely" mean? Health asked infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Maryland, to clarify how often you should clean your mask and the best way to do it.
How often should I wash my face mask?
In the absence of more specific CDC guidelines, Dr. Adalja says that cleaning your cloth face mask every night is a good rule of thumb.
“I would say it’s best to wash them after use," so maybe at the end of every day before you use it again,” Dr. Adalja tells Health. “If you’ve been out all day, you should probably wash it again." This way, it's clean and ready to use next time you leave the house.
This general rule applies to everyone, from people who live in an area with few COVID-19 cases as well as those who reside in crowded cities, he says. Also, if your mask is visibly soiled, or you've coughed and sneezed into it, it's probably a good idea to wash it as soon as you get home...and wash your hands after you touch it. Consider having not one but a stash of masks on hand, so you always have a clean one at hand.
Why is washing my face mask so important?
Because the face mask itself can become contaminated, explains Dr. Adalja. Since it touches your nose and mouth, it's possible any viral particles on the mask could get into your respiratory system and infect you. “You’re always touching it with your hands, you’re taking it on and off, and setting it down in different places that might be contaminated with the virus,” he says. “I think it’s important to remember that the face mask isn’t ironclad, and it could serve as a vector for transmission itself if it’s not properly maintained and cleaned.”
Wash your face mask every day for the same reason you regularly wash your other clothes. Otherwise “it will get contaminated with anything in the environment, like bacteria, viruses, and fungi," says Dr. Adalja. "And if you’re not regularly washing it, it could itself contaminate other things you leave it with every time you take it off." In other words, if the mask carries the virus, those viral particles could end up on surfaces in your home.
What's the best way to wash my mask?
The CDC says that placing your cloth mask in the washing machine with a standard, store-bought detergent is the best (and easiest) way to properly clean your mask. Additionally, Mayo Clinic advises using a hot water temperature. A hot dryer setting is a smart idea as well.
If you don’t have a washing machine at home, you can still clean your mask properly with regular hand soap and water, says Dr. Adalja. Scrub it thoroughly in warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. While it might be tempting to wipe down or spritz your face mask with a disinfectant solution if you’re in a pinch, Dr. Adalja doesn't recommend that method—you might end up breathing in potentially harmful chemicals. Instead, just wait until the next time you can get to a sink and wash it then.
What if my face mask is an industrial or surgical mask, not cloth?
If you’ve been opting for a disposable surgical or industrial-style mask, replacing it after every use is the best way to keep it clean. If that becomes too pricey or isn't feasible because you don't have a large supply of disposable masks at the ready, consider switching to the cloth kind you can easily machine- or hand-wash at the end of each day.
The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.
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