I saw two men recently wearing disposable masks that were visibly dirty and greasy on the outside. One was my mechanic who also had on greasy rubber gloves and had just put snow tires on my van. The other was retired, looking cozy in his cardigan and khakis, and on his way to the grocery store.
My mechanic’s mask was dirty for good reason and based on the trash can, he and his co-workers changed their PPE often. The other guy’s mask was gross because of overuse, and ew. He was either penny-pinching or unaware of how ineffective single use masks are after their roughly eight hours of use. While disposable masks need to be pitched after a day’s time of use, cloth masks can be used over and over again. They are better for the environment and budget, but they also need to be seen as single use masks. Dirty cloth masks are gross too. Yes, masks are kind of a pain but if we are going to wear them, then we need to know how to care for them to be sure they are as effective as possible.
Why do we need to clean our masks? Simply put, it kills viruses that you are either breathing onto it or ones that have been picked up while you are in public. Studies have shown that the coronavirus can live on fabric for up to two days. Another study showed it can live up to seven days on fabric.
So before you properly wash your mask, be sure you are taking it off correctly. I know, I know … how hard is it to remove a piece of cloth? Well, it’s not hard, but it can be dangerous if you directly touch the germs you were trying not to spread. Be sure to take the mask off using the strings behind the ears and then fold the outside corners together so that you don’t touch the outside of the mask. Place the mask in a bag or bin in order for it to be washed. And then wash your hands and avoid touching your face or other surfaces before you do so.
If disposable masks are your thing, do it. However, unless you are wearing it for hours at a time, you can use it more than once. After wearing it for short errands, be sure to place it in a clean bag or spot where it will stay clean and dry. Raina MacIntyre, head of the Biosecurity Research Program at the University of New South Wales’ Kirby Institute, says that you can also give your mask a light spritz of aerosolized disinfectant before placing it in the bag to kill any germs.
Many of us have collections of cloth masks. I think they are more comfortable and it’s fun to use them as accessories or personal statements. The market wasn’t stupid and quickly realized that if a favorite team, color, quote, etc. was on a mask, then people would be more willing to buy and wear them. (Nothing says “I support science” like a Fuck Trump or Red Sox mask.) But our masks shouldn’t be worn as often as our favorite sweats. After a full day’s wear or after multiple short outings, you need to wash it. I find it easy to collect a bunch of dirty masks in a mesh laundry bag and then throw them in with a load of laundry. The CDC recommends using the hottest water setting that is appropriate for the fabric of the masks, and to dry them on the warmest setting as well.
In my attempt to add some longevity to our stash of masks, I hang dry them when they come out of the washer. I have no scientific proof this helps, but hanging them makes it easier to keep track of them because the one time I did throw the mesh bag into the dryer by accident the zipper came undone and I had to pillage through a pile of clothes to find my kids’ favorite masks. Right before school, because of course. A friend has had luck with drying masks in the dryer in a tied pillow case.
If you don’t have access to a washing machine, you can hand wash your masks in a mild (0.05%) chlorine solution. Soak your masks in the solution for 30 minutes, then rinse with laundry detergent and water and then let them air dry on a clean and sanitized surface. UVB light has also been found to kill COVID-19, but I will stick to liquid methods. Some people have gotten creative with said liquid and have steamed their masks clean. Raina MacIntyre says we can rinse our masks in the sink and then place the mask in a steamer where the broccoli should go. Steam for five minutes, then dry. Some people have used rice cookers and instant pots to clean their masks. Just don’t put them in the microwave or oven for fear of igniting hazardous material found in the fabric or lighting the whole damn mask on fire.
I would love to burn it all down, but until then, I’ll mask up and deal with extra laundry. I hope this doesn’t need to be said, but if your mask has a hole or tear in it, then you need to throw it away. Also, if it has become loose and no longer stays over both your mouth and nose, you need to retire that one too.
The CDC has given us scientific proof that masks are effective in preventing the transmission of COVID-19 by reducing the emissions of respiratory droplets. And with more than 3 million people estimated to be infected with COVID-19, you should wear a mask too. I miss not waking up to death totals on the rise. I miss my loved ones. I miss travel. I miss not having this existential dread of doom weighing on me.
I get it; it’s hard to do something when you don’t seem impacted by it. Like why exercise or clean up your diet if you haven’t been told you have high cholesterol or diabetes? Or why wear a mask when you don’t know anyone who has gotten really sick or died from COVID-19? Because prevention. And, in the case of COVID, compassion. To do our best work for humanity, we need to keep our masks clean.
Information about COVID-19 is rapidly changing, and Scary Mommy is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. With news being updated so frequently, some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For this reason, we are encouraging readers to use online resources from local public health departments, the Centers for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization to remain as informed as possible.