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Medical experts recommend that cloth face masks be washed after each use. Getty Images
  • Experts say face masks help prevent the spread of COVID-19 by providing a barrier to catch virus-containing respiratory droplets.
  • However, a contaminated mask might also potentially spread the disease.
  • It’s recommended that masks be cleaned after each use.
  • Masks that can’t be cleaned should ideally be discarded after use.

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Face masks help in reducing the spread of COVID-19 because they provide a barrier to catch the respiratory droplets that are released when people cough, sneeze, or talk.

These droplets are what carry the virus from person to person, according to Dr. Steve Pergam, MPH, medical director of infection prevention at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

If a nearby person inhales the droplets or they land inside their mouth or nose, they may contract an infection with the virus.

If a person touches a contaminated mask then touches their mouth or nose, they might also potentially contract an infection.

For this reason, it’s important that masks be cleaned and sanitized on a regular basis.

Here’s how you can safely disinfect common types of masks for reuse during the pandemic, and how to handle medical-grade masks that can’t easily be cleaned properly outside of a medical setting.

Debra Goff, PharmD, FIDSA, FCCP, an infectious diseases specialist and professor of pharmacy practice at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, says that cloth masks, bandanas, scarves, and neck gaiters are all types of face masks that can be cleaned and reused.

To machine-wash your mask, first wash your hands. Then remove the mask, being careful not to touch your eyes, nose, or mouth, she says.

Toss the mask directly into the washing machine and wash your hands immediately after.

She recommends using your regular laundry detergent along with bleach and the warmest water recommended for that fabric type.

Once the mask is laundered, dry on high heat until it’s completely dry.

If you’re planning to hand-wash your mask, Goff suggests following the same procedure of washing your hands before removing your mask.

To disinfect your mask, soak it in a bleach solution containing 4 teaspoons of household bleach per each quart of water for 5 minutes.

After soaking the mask, rinse thoroughly with water.

Allow the mask to air-dry.

Goff says it’s best to clean cloth face masks after each use.

Kaiming Ye, PhD, professor and department chair of biomedical engineering and director of the Center of Biomanufacturing for Regenerative Medicine at Binghamton University, State University of New York, says that certain types of masks, such as N95 and surgical masks, are designed for single-use only.

For the average person, this means the masks should be disposed of in the trash after wearing.

Ye says they can be reused in professional settings, however, if properly disinfected.

For example, he says, N95 masks can be disinfected by UVC germicidal irradiation or vapor phase hydrogen peroxide.

Ye notes, however, that no tests have been performed on surgical mask disinfection or reuse, as the demand is low.

In cases when you can’t replace your mask between each use, Goff suggests that you inspect the mask when you take it off.

If the mask is dirty, torn, or saturated with moisture, she says you should discard it.

If it appears to be clean and intact, she recommends storing it in a clean paper bag or other breathable container between uses.

Ideally, however, they shouldn’t be reused.

Goff says face shields are in their own category.

Since they’re open on the side, they don’t provide protection from sneezes or coughs behind you.

They do, however, provide protection for your eyes.

Goff says face shields are often worn in addition to a face mask for added protection.

To clean a face shield, wipe down the inside first using a clean cloth saturated with a neutral detergent solution or cleaner wipe, she says.

Then wipe down the outside using a disinfectant wipe or clean cloth saturated with a disinfectant solution.

Follow up by wiping the outside of the face shield with clean water or alcohol to remove the residue.

Allow the face shield to air-dry.

Finally, wash your hands when you’re done.

Face masks are an important way to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Masks should be cleaned or discarded after use.

Cloth face masks can be sanitized by laundering them.

Medical masks aren’t designed to be reused. They should be discarded in the trash unless you’re a medical professional and have access to the proper equipment to disinfect them.

Face shields may be used with a face mask for added protection. They should also be cleaned between uses.