How To Keep Your Face Mask Clean

The CDC and an infectious disease doctor clarify how to clean it right.

Whether you wear disposable masks, respirators, or cloth masks, face masks have become a staple in our lives. Wearing a face mask is a simple measure that can help prevent COVID-19 from spreading. However, in order to ensure the mask you choose is keeping you and others safe, it's important to practice proper care for your mask.

According to recommendations on the use and care of masks from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), correct and consistent care will ensure that your mask is effective as a safety tool during the pandemic.

Different Masks; Different Care Instructions

The CDC provides different recommendations for keeping masks clean according to the type of mask used.

  • Disposable, blue surgical masks cannot be laundered or cleaned and should be thrown away after they're worn once.
  • For respirators such as N95s, check the respirator manufacturer's instructions to learn how long it can be worn before it should be thrown away.
  • Disposable masks and respirators that become wet or dirty should be thrown away immediately.
  • Reusable cloth masks, which became widespread during the pandemic should be cared for differently. According to the CDC, cloth masks should be washed at least once a day or as soon as they become wet or dirty.

Infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Maryland, told Health 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," said Dr. Adalja. "If you've been out all day, you should probably wash it again." This way, it's clean and ready to use the 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, said Dr. Adalja. Also, consider having not one but a stash of masks on hand, so you always have a clean one at hand.

Best Way To Store Your Mask

If your cloth mask is dry and clean, you can store it in a breathable bag (like a paper or mesh fabric bag) to keep it clean between uses on the same day. If your cloth mask is wet or dirty, put it in a sealed plastic bag until you can wash it. This will keep it from getting moldy.

According to the CDC, when you are taking off your mask to eat or drink outside of your home, place it somewhere safe to keep it clean, such as in your pocket, purse, or paper bag. After eating, you should put the mask back on with the same side facing out.

You should always wash or sanitize your hands after removing your mask.

Keeping Your Mask Clean

Because the face mask itself can become contaminated since it touches your nose and mouth, it's possible that any viral particles on the mask could get into your respiratory system and infect you, explained Dr. Adalja. "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," said Dr. Adalja. "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," said 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.

According to the CDC's face mask best practices, placing your cloth mask in the washing machine with a standard, store-bought detergent is the best (and easiest) way to clean your mask properly.

If you don't have a washing machine at home, you can still clean your mask properly with regular hand soap and water. Scrub it thoroughly in warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds, per 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, you should avoid doing so as you might end up breathing in potentially harmful chemicals, added Dr. Adalja. Instead, just wait until the next time you can get to a sink and wash it then.

Should You Keep Wearing a Mask?

The CDC affirms that to prevent the spread of COVID-19, any mask is better than no mask.

Effective February 25, 2022, the CDC does not require the wearing of masks on buses or vans operated by public or private school systems, including early care and education/child care programs. However, the agency continues to recommend that people wear masks in indoor public transportation settings at this time.

To protect yourself and others from COVID-19, opt for the most protective mask you can. As they offer the highest level of protection, a highly protective mask or respirator may be most important for certain higher-risk situations or for some people at increased risk for severe disease.

It is important that whatever mask you choose fits you well.

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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