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I'm an Infectious Disease Doctor and Here's How to Wash Your Mask

A Yale infectious disease specialist explains everything we need to know about facial coverings.

Masks have become a key defender in our battle against COVID-19. Not only do they keep us protected from potentially infected respiratory droplets, but also keep our own from making their way into someone else's nostrils, slowing the spread and saving lives in the process. However, if you aren't regularly washing your masks, you are risking your life. Jaimie Meyer, MD, a Yale Medicine infectious disease specialist and associate professor of medicine at Yale School of Medicine, explains to Eat This, Not That! Health everything you need to know about washing your mask—from why it is so important to how to do it. Read on, and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had Coronavirus.


Why Wash Your Mask? For One, It Could Save Your Life

woman coughing in medical mask on her face

Dr. Meyer explains that washing your mask is a crucial part of protecting yourself and others from becoming infected. For example, if you yourself are infected with COVID-19 (even if you don't have symptoms), respiratory droplets containing COVID could land on the inward facing side of the mask. Alternatively, if you are exposed to someone with COVID, their infected respiratory droplets could land on the outside surface of your mask. "The mask itself then becomes a contaminated surface and is potentially hazardous to anyone who handles it," she points out.  


Soiled Masks Are Less Effective

woman in yellow rainwear with mask for protection coronavirus.

Aside from the virus, your mask can also become soiled with saliva, sweat, makeup, etc. which can be unhygienic if inhaled. "Masks that are soiled are also less effective than clean masks at decreasing the spread of droplets," she adds. 



How Long Can Virus Particles Stay on a Mask, Anyway?

Chemist Adjusts Samples in a Petri Dish with Pincers and then Examines Them Under Microscope


Under laboratory conditions, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, remained stable and lived on surfaces for up to 8 hours, Dr. Meyer points out. "Although this study only looked at surfaces like copper, cardboard, steel, and plastic, one might expect that SARS-CoV-2 might also remain on fabric for just as long," she says. She does mention that even though there is a theoretical risk of becoming infected from these contaminated surfaces, the CDC has updated their webpages to say that the primary way people become infected is still through person to person spread of droplets.



How Often Should You Clean Your Mask?

woman adjusting a trendy textile face mask behind her ear.

Every time you remove or handle your face mask (and potentially come into contact with its contaminated surfaces), you should wash your hands with soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitizer, reminds Dr. Meyer. As for your cloth facemask, she maintains that you should clean it regularly, "at least a few times a week, and right away if visibly soiled with any bodily fluids like blood, sweat, vomit, mucous, etc.," she explains. "The safest recommendation in terms of reducing the risk of COVID-19 infection and optimizing hygiene is to wash your mask every day."


How Should You Wash Your Mask?

Reusable homemade cloth face mask before washing in the washing machine

Dr. Meyer points to the CDC's recommendations, that cloth face coverings should be washed well with soap and water ("that is, as warm as possible based on the fabric"). "If handling face coverings of someone who is ill or infected, use bleach or another EPA-approved product that is active against the virus," she adds.  


At What Temperature Should You Wash Your Mask?

Close up of woman hand adjusting washing machine

While 140º F is generally the temperature thought to disinfect, Dr. Meyer advises paying less attention to the temperature and more to what you are washing your mask with. "Certainly higher temperatures of water will kill certain forms of bacteria, but for COVID-19, the important part of disinfecting is not the water as much as the soap!" she says. "The soap is the important part, whether you hand or machine wash because the soap actually sticks to the virus particles like Velcro and then can be washed away with waste water. "



How Should You Dry Your Mask?

Homemade community face masks from colorful cotton against coronavirus pandemic hanging on a clothesline

Make sure to pay special attention to your mask's fabric before throwing in the dryer—or your adult mask could shrink into a child's size. "You can air dry or use a machine dryer, but it should be dried completely," Dr. Meyer suggests.


How Dr. Meyer Washes Her Mask

Self-sewn fabric mouth protection masks in a washing machine.

Dr. Meyer does everything she can to keep her go-to masks in perfect shape. "I personally hand wash and air dry my favorite face masks but throw others right in the laundry (machine wash and dry) with the rest of our family's clothes," she admits.  


Can You Wash Paper or Surgical Masks?

Hand of an Asian man washing a mask.

That is a big NO. "Paper or surgical masks are single use only," Dr. Meyer reminds. "They should be disposed of after each use."


How Many Masks Should I Have?

Due to the fact that you should regularly be washing your cloth face masks, you need more than one. However, the number you should have depends on how often you use them. "The number of masks you need depends on how often you are heading out into public spaces!" she explains. "If leaving your home regularly, you'll want to have at least a few on hand so you always have a fresh one to wear, especially if one is stuck in the laundry machine."


How to Avoid COVID-19

DIY fabric face mask ,hand sanitizer spray and cloth bag

Mask up! And get tested if you think you have coronavirus, avoid crowds (and bars, and house parties), practice social distancing, only run essential errands, wash your hands regularly, disinfect frequently touched surfaces, and to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 37 Places You're Most Likely to Catch Coronavirus.

Leah Groth
Leah Groth has decades of experience covering all things health, wellness and fitness related. Read more about Leah
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