In an age of misinformation, something as simple as cleaning a cloth face mask can become incredibly confusing. What should you use to clean it? How should you clean it, and how often?
We’ve likely read many of the same articles you have, and we’re still confused. Which is why we chose to turn to the science experts for some definitive advice on how to properly clean face masks. Apparently, it’s not all that complicated!
Here are a few things to keep in mind before you start dousing your face masks with every disinfectant you can find.
How often should you wash your face mask?
Your washing machine might not approve, but here’s the thing: Cloth masks need to be cleaned pretty regularly—as in, almost every time they’re worn. While taking a solo walk to the mailbox might not qualify, any activity that brings you out in public or around other people should be cause enough to wash it.
“If you’re using a standard cloth mask, it needs to be washed after each use,” says Keane Veran, CEO of OURA, a leading manufacturer of reusable face masks.
If your mask has antimicrobial properties, it requires less frequent cleaning—like two to three times a week, Veran says. Otherwise, plan on washing it after every trip out in public.
What you need to know about hand-washing your mask
Luckily for your washing machine, it’s not the only way to clean a mask. In fact, while it might not be the most convenient, the experts agree: Hand-washing your homemade DIY mask is best. Although machine washing will also work to disinfect a mask between uses, hand-washing is better for one simple reason: It helps your mask last longer.
“Ideally, masks should be hand-washed with detergent,” says Veran. “Scrub them under warm water to thoroughly lather the detergent.”
Be sure to remove any filter in your mask before washing it, and don’t worry about making the water as hot as possible. Although hot water does help to kill microbes, using detergent to wash your mask thoroughly is sufficient.
“Any standard detergent would work well to break down microbes,” Veran says. “It’s the soap that breaks down the fatty capsule of the virus, allowing it to be washed away.”
What you need to know about machine-washing your mask
Depending on how many mask-wearers you have in your household, you might be tempted to machine-wash your masks. And while hand-washing preserves masks longer, sometimes it’s our own sanity that needs preserving. If that’s the case, here are a few things to keep in mind to give your masks the best possible chance of surviving the laundry machine.
- Only machine-wash basic cotton masks: If your mask has any sort of nose piece or component other than a piece of cotton fabric and elastic ear bands, do yourself a favor and keep it out of the washing machine. “If there’s a nose piece in the mask, laundering will increase the chance for it to become dislodged or poke through the fabric,” cautions Veran.
- Use a laundry bag: Since even the simplest of cotton masks tend to have some sort of elastic band, it’s best to wash them in a protective laundry bag separately from other clothes. “The ear loops can easily catch on buttons or zippers, which can stretch, tear, or alter the structure of the mask,” says Veran. “Since the fit of a mask is crucial to providing protection, it is incredibly important that the mask does not become warped.”
- Be careful with bleach and hot water: Speaking of warped, you might be tempted to crank up the heat (or chemicals) when machine-washing your masks—but you’re better off keeping temperature and extra disinfectants to a minimum. Hot water has a tendency to shrink cotton and polyester masks, which may make them unwearable. The same goes for pouring lots of bleach in the batch. Bleach may help disinfect the mask, but it is also hard on fabric, and it may also destroy any color patterns on your mask. Spend some time looking at your mask and understanding how it’s made before you toss it in the laundry machine, and this will give you the best chance of still having functional face protection postwash.
Drying your mask
Since the novel coronavirus is deactivated by washing it, how you dry your mask is really just a matter of personal preference. Air-drying it in the sun is a great option, though machine drying works just as well.
“Think about washing and drying anything that’s like a mask,” says Bill Carroll, adjunct professor of chemistry at Indiana University. “Generally, cloth masks will be cotton or cotton-polyester, and the things that go over your ears will be elastic or of the same material as the mask. So the care of such a mask should be analogous to a cotton article with an elastic waistband—like underwear. If you would put underwear in the dryer, it should be OK for the mask as well.”
The final word
Again, take a look at how durable your masks appear to be, and develop a cleaning regimen that makes sense—both in terms of your usage and how many people are in your household. Maybe this means buying enough masks that you always have a clean one ready. If you have a lot of mask wearers in your home, get them involved in helping you hand-wash these items every week or few days. The family that cleans together, stays healthy together!