Masks became a pretty regular part of our lives fairly quickly – perhaps faster than we could figure out how to properly use them. You find packs of them by the cash register at the grocery store. Your favorite clothing designer has come out with their own special line of face coverings. Gas stations sell them. The Etsy platform is booming with them, but do we really know what to do with masks once we wear them?
Masks are now a new part of our health and hygiene routine, which means we need to be dilligent about not only how we wear them but how we wash them. We gathered information from the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization to determine things you might be doing wrong with your mask.
Placing it face-down on a surface
Should you be a carrier of COVID-19, then the inside of your mask is contaminated with the virus. Your nose and mouth – the portals for infected particles – sit right up against your mask. So when you take it off, if you place the part that touched your face, on a surface, you could contaminate the surface. Research has found the virus can survive on copper for four hours, on cardboard for 24 hours, and on plastic and stainless steel for two or three days.
Propping it on your chin
If you go in and out of businesses that require a mask, you may be tempted to just pull it down and prop it under your chin. Keep in mind that contaminated droplets may have landed on your exposed chin when the mask was up. Now you’ve put the inside of your mask, on those droplets, and will pull that mask right over your face.
Hanging it from your mirror. Maybe.
Keeping a mask hanging from your rearview mirror can be a convenient way to always make sure you have one with you. Since you aren’t putting it on a surface, there’s no concern about contaminating a surface. However, you should either wash every mask between uses or put a worn mask aside for a couple of days before using it again, to allow any virus to die. If you want to leave your mask hanging from your rearview mirror, let a couple of days go by before putting it back on.
Stashing it this way on the go
If you’re out and about all day, there may be times you take your mask off and put it back on. The best way to store it is in a paper bag or envelope – these both breathe while protecting the mask against debris. Don’t put it in a plastic bag. Plastic doesn’t breathe, so if there are bacteria on your mask, it can grow in a plastic bag.
Re-using a disposable mask right away
Disposable masks are technically meant for single-time use. However, if you’d like to re-use yours, there is a safe way to do so. Put it in an enclosed paper bag for at least three days. During that time, any virus that may have been on the mask should die. But do not re-use a disposable mask, one day after the other as it could be contaminated. Using this paper bag method, you’ll need several masks you’re constantly rotating.
You’re wearing the same one all day
Not only should masks be switched out every day, but if you need to wear a mask all day, say for work or for errands, you should be switching it out every two hours. Viral particles can accumulate on the front of the mask, and the longer that mask sits on your face, the higher the chances that those viral particles enter your mouth or nose.
Washing them incorrectly
Disposable medical masks, N95 masks, and cloth masks can all be cleaned, but all in different ways. N95 and disposable medical masks can be steamed. But you should not apply any disinfectants to these – their chemicals cay destroy the filters in N95 masks and are toxic for you to inhale. Your cloth masks should be washed in the laundry, using your usual detergent.
Using the wrong bleach
If you choose to bleach your cloth masks when washing them, make sure you know which bleach to use. The CDC recommends ensuring your bleach is meant for disinfecting and using bleach with between and 5.25 and 8.25 percent sodium hypochlorite. Do not use a bleach that doesn’t specify the levels of hypochlorite. Be sure to rinse your mask thoroughly after using bleach on it, and giving it plenty of time to ventilate after washing and before using it.
Touching the front
Try as best you can not to touch the front of your mask. When putting it on, adjusting it, or taking it off, use only the loops on the side. The large surface area of the mask could be contaminated with droplets. If you touch those, then your hands can become contaminated. To be safe, always wash your hands before and after putting on or removing your mask.
Only covering your mouth
While the nostrils are much smaller openings than the mouth, that doesn’t mean they can’t take in or send out infected particles. In fact, unless you are a mouth breather, you likely breathe mostly or entirely through your nose. Meaning, if you only cover your mouth, you’re leaving yourself vulnerable to infection or making it likely that you spread the virus if you have it.
Wearing a tight mask
Your mask should fit tight around the sides, so as to keep particles out. However, it shouldn’t be too tight over your nose and mouth. If it’s too tight in those areas, air will be forced to go out and around the mask, rather than through it. A good fit is securely on at the edges – chin, cheeks, bridge of the nose – but has some room directly over your nose and mouth for easy breathing.
Sharing a mask
Never share your mask. Do not even share it with someone in your household. Though your logic may be, “If I have the virus, they already do,” that may not be true. But sharing a contaminated mask with someone is the fast-track to giving them the virus. Just because you have the virus doesn’t mean those you live with must get it. And if you think, “I feel fine, so I don’t have it” remember you may be asymptomatic.
Getting a thin mask
It’s best to either have a multi-layer mask, or a tight-weave mask. One expert recommends holding your mask up to the light. If you can see the individual fibers, it isn’t tight enough. A cotton tight weave mask is a good bet because cotton fibers are three-dimensional, meaning they create a bit more structure and can better block out the virus than synthetic fibers.
Using a coffee filter as a filter
Some DIYers are adding their own filters to masks, and some are using coffee filters. Unfortunately, a coffee filter doesn’t allow air to pass through, so you wind up breathing around it, rather than through it, which defeats the purpose of the filter. If you want to add your own filter to a mask, use polypropylene fabric. If you cannot find this, you can use two pieces of facial tissue, folded over. But be sure to switch those out daily.
Using a flat mask
Look for masks with pleats or folds. They allow the mask to expand in front of your mouth and nose when you breathe. This means you breathe through the mask, rather than pushing air out through the sides of it. Masks that are completely flat on the front are less effective because they might force air out and around your mask, rather than through it.