Q&A: How Often Should We Wash Our Face Masks?
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Amid the coronavirus pandemic, leaving your house without a face mask is like leaving without your keys or wallet. It’s that important! Given that you need to keep it on your face for various periods of time whenever you go to public places, it’s essential that you wash it properly between wears.
One of the things that have bugged me ever since we’ve been required to wear face masks is how to keep them as clean as possible. Just how often should we wash our cloth face masks and how should we do it so that they keep us protected against the coronavirus?
Here’s what health experts had to say regarding these questions and more!
Why is wearing a face mask important?
When the coronavirus outbreak was labeled a pandemic, wearing face masks was recommended when going out but in the early stages of the outbreak, it was not something mandatory. Authorities initially feared that demand would affect frontline health workers and leave them exposed and vulnerable.
However, as the virus continued to spread aggressively and infect millions of people around the world, governments began mandating face masks in public spaces where social distancing was not an option, such as stores, shopping areas, and public transportation.
“Face masks could help to reduce transmission in the community particularly if used in public transport and crowded areas,” says Ben Cowling, head of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Hong Kong. Face masks can be extremely efficient in the case of infected but asymptomatic carriers, who are prevented from unknowingly passing the virus to others.
How should a face mask fit?
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), a face mask should have the following characteristics:
- allow for easy breathing
- fit snugly but comfortably
- tied behind your head or looped around your ears
- maintain its shape after washing and drying
- have at least 2 layers of tightly-woven material fabric (such as cotton or linen) or a filter
- cover the nose and mouth without gaping
How often should we wash our face masks?
Various studies suggested that the virus can linger in the air for at least 30 minutes and reach up to 4.5 meters and infect people if breathed in. One study by virologist Neeltje van Doremalen and her colleagues at the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Hamilton, Montana says the Sars-CoV-2 virus can survive in the air for at least three hours! Not to mention it can live on various surfaces such as plastic and metal for 2-3 days.
With that in mind, the CDC recommends that face masks are “routinely washed depending on the frequency of use.”
“You don’t take this dirty mask off, put it in your purse and then stick it back on your face,” says Dr. Daniel Griffin, a member of the Division of Infectious Diseases and an Associate Research Scientist in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics at Columbia University. “It’s something that once you put on, is potentially either touching your coughs, sneezes or the spray of your speech or protecting you from the coughs, spray, speech of other people. And now it’s dirty. It needs to basically be either discarded or washed.”
If the term “routinely” is not clear enough, a general rule would be to wash your cloth face mask every night. “I would say it’s best to wash them after use, at the end of every day before you use it again,” recommends infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Maryland.
How to properly maintain our face masks
If it’s not properly maintained and cleaned, a face mask can represent a source of transmission. You touch it all the time with your hands, leave it on different surfaces that might be contaminated and can easily pick up the virus and pass it to other things you leave it in contact with.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), you need to take off your mask without touching the front part, like in the video below. The CDC says it’s ok to wash your face covering with your regular laundry or wash it by hand using bleach intended for disinfection. You can dry the cloth face mask in the dryer or place it in direct sunlight and let it dry on its own.
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