Laundry can be a tricky chore if you're not an expert on the subject, and sometimes it's a little too easy to skip reading the tag and throw everything into the same load. There are many different materials and care requirements out there, which can lead to proper washing techniques flying out the door. Regardless, there are some items that should be handled with a lot more care than others—and not just that cashmere sweater. Face masks need extra attention, too.
What used to be an occasional piece of protective equipment for most of us is now part of our everyday lives and ensuring they're clean is vital to staying healthy and safe. With countless guidelines and tips swirling around, it can be hard to stay on top of general rules much less remember the correct way to wash your reusable face mask.
To stay safe and maintain your masks' protective qualities, there are a few mistakes many of us have made (and might be continuing to make) with reusable face masks that should be avoided. Fortunately, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other experts have pointers for properly caring for your mask.
Meet the Expert
General Guidelines for Reusable Face Masks
As per the CDC, reusable face masks should be washed once a day at the very least and can be cleaned in a washing machine or by hand. Special detergents aren't required for either. For washing machine users, placing masks in the dryer is completely fine, though they should be fully dry before using. For hand-washed masks, the CDC encourages allowing masks to dry in the sun. If this isn't possible, lay them out flat until they're moisture-free.
Mesh laundry bags can be helpful for separating your mask out from the rest of your clothing and makes for an easy transfer to the dryer. Sanitizers such as chlorine bleach or pine oil can be used, too, for extra precaution. Though these aren't required when hot water and a hot dryer are being used, they are especially helpful for homes with someone who is sick and not needed for everyday washing.
These guidelines and the following tips are specific to reusable face masks. Remember that single-use and disposable face masks should not be washed and it's better to just throw them away. Respirators such as N95 and KN95 masks can be reused a handful of times but must be cared for properly and not overused. This can lead to a loose, improper fit and ineffective filtration.
Forgetting to Wash Face Masks At All
Yes, it happens, but it's a top mistake that you should aim to avoid at all costs. When masks are stored away in purses, backpacks, and coat pockets they can be easily forgotten but they need to be cleaned, and not just a quick rinse. "The key to removing bacteria and therefore sterilizing masks is a decent detergent, time, and temperature," says Wayne Edelman of Meurice Garment Care. "[The CDC] recommends a temperature of at least 160°F (71°C) for a minimum of 25 minutes."
He also adds that chlorine bleach can be helpful as previously mentioned, but this is for a stringent level of protection. "Again, to reiterate time and temperature are necessary for decontamination and you really want to have a germ-free mask to breathe through considering we spend a lot of time in masks," says Edelman.
Not Reading the Guidelines
Whether it's for work or for personal use, understanding what governing bodies and organizations say in regards to how face coverings should be sanitized and washed can help you avoid mistakes and confusion. Their research and authority can help you make informed decisions about the best way to wash a mask, depending on the setup you have.
Edelman noted that his company's master tailor-made face masks for all employees, and this led to familiarizing himself with proper face mask washing protocols. "We labeled them for each employee and washed them in net bags according to our OSHA guidelines for processing medical uniforms," he explained. "Most people wash their masks improperly."
The CDC, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and other groups are great resources to lean on when it comes to helpful instructions, tips, and don'ts for mask washing procedures. In terms of masks specifically, OSHA also points to the CDC's washing recommendations.
Not Washing Them Enough
Michael Dean, home improvement expert and co-founder of Pool Research, says that "masks have become a regular part of our daily wardrobe, so understanding how to clean them properly is pretty crucial." One of the biggest mistakes he says to avoid is inconsistent washing. As these types of masks can be worn over and over again, it's best to stick with a strict, frequent cleaning routine.
"Oils, saliva, and other forms of moisture can cause bacteria to grow on the inside of your mask," Dean explains. "This could lead to less than desirable smells, and a lack of protection against actual illness." To help remember, set a reminder for yourself and schedule it into your evening routine. Having multiple masks you can rotate through will also come in handy if it gets too late and your mask isn't dry by the following morning.
"My general rule of thumb is to wash your mask at the end of each day," he says. "This doesn't mean you need a full wash cycle. Just soak in some soapy water for 10–15 minutes, and toss it in the dryer."
Using Fabric Softener
Fans of fabric softeners may want to try using these chemicals on their face masks to make them more comfortable. Unfortunately, these formulas are often too strong and can be a major source of irritation for anyone with sensitive skin.
"Most industrial-made fabric softeners are made with chemicals that can break down the material of the mask, making it less effective," Dean notes. "The chemicals can also cause skin irritation, or discomfort when breathing. This is why I always go with milder soaps when washing my face mask." The safest option is to stick with your regular detergent and only use bleach or sanitizers when necessary to lessen the chance of breakouts, allergic reactions, or redness.
Not Storing Masks Correctly
Between wearing and washing, face masks should be stored properly, too. This will increase their longevity and durability as well as help you with cleaning in the long run. It's key for cutting down on the spread of germs as well. The CDC explains that a paper or mesh bag can be a great way of storing masks when you're in a place where they can be removed and later replaced.
Bags like this also make it easy to carry your mask and transfer it directly to the washing machine or sink. This holds true even more so for a mesh bag, which allows you to simply toss it in the washing machine and then the dryer with little contact. Soon, you'll know these proper washing steps better than the back of your hand (or mask).
CLINICAL EVIDENCE ASSESSMENT Safety of Extended Use and Reuse of N95 Respirators. Economic Research Cycle Institute.
Laundry Care Tips for People with Eczema. National Eczema Association.