How to clean your fabric face mask between trips to the store for essentials

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how to clean a face mask

  • The CDC recommends wearing a cloth face-covering in public to prevent community transmission of COVID-19 — but in order to maximize the effectiveness of your face mask, it's important to keep it clean. 
  • Cloth masks can be machine- or hand-washed with a heavy-duty detergent like Persil or Tide.
  • If someone in your household is ill or has a compromised immune system, you may want to add a disinfectant to the wash cycle, as well.
  • We spoke to immunologist, Dr. Tania Elliott, for insight into the importance of wearing a face mask and the best practices for keeping cloth face masks washed and clean. 
  • It's a good idea to have several masks that can be rotated out so a clean one is always available, so we polled our team for the best face masks they've worn and combed Etsy for the site's highest-rated options
Table of Contents: Masthead Sticky

Now that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended wearing face masks to prevent the transmission of COVID-19, and with disposable masks in short supply, it's important to know how to handle and clean reusable cloth masks correctly.

We spoke with Tania Elliott MD, an immunologist and national spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology who reiterated the importance of covering your face in public. "Many people can be asymptomatic carriers of the virus, so you may have it and be spreading it without even knowing," she said. "Therefore, wearing a mask protects others in the event that you sneeze or cough while you're talking and respiratory particles are transmitted into the air." Dr. Elliott added, "A mask should be worn whenever you cannot be more than six feet apart from people." 

Can I clean my face mask at home?

Disposable masks made from non-woven fibers, KN95, and N95 masks cannot be safely cleaned at home. Exposure to excessive amounts of water and cleaning products will destroy the fibers and can damage the carbon filtration systems of N95 respirators.

KN95 or N95 masks should be reserved for medical workers, but if you have one, know that they can be worn up to five times by the same person, according to the CDC. There are exceptions if the mask is used in certain medical procedures, damaged, or heavily soiled. 

Because of supply chain shortages, researchers have had to figure out if and how N95 masks can be sanitized for reuse. Researchers at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign found that 50 minutes of dry heat in an electric cooker such as an InstantPot can kill four types of viruses on N95 respirators, including a coronavirus. After preheating the cooker for five minutes until it reaches 347 °F, use a towel in the pot to line the interior and then place your mask on top for 50 minutes.

N95 mask inventor Dr. Peter Tsai and scientists at the University of Tennessee are also studying the effectiveness of using ultraviolet-C (UV-C) light as a disinfectant. However, no procedures for cleaning these masks at home have been approved. Fabric face masks, on the other hand, can and should be washed at home. They can be reused until they're torn or no longer fit the face of the wearer.

How to wear and remove a face mask correctly

Before you put on a face mask, wash your hands with soap or use hand sanitizer. Identify the exterior and interior sides of the mask. Always be sure to place the interior surface next to your skin. The mask should be worn tightly against the face and cover both your nose and mouth. Try not to touch the mask while you are wearing it.

When it is time to remove the mask, slip the elastic bands from your ears, or untie the strings. Do not grab the front of the mask to remove it from your face. Using the strings or elastic bands, place the mask directly in a paper bag for disposal, or to hold it until you're ready to wash or wear it. 

Wash your hands again.

How to clean a cloth face mask

Dr. Elliott recommends cleaning cloth masks after each use. It's a good idea to have several masks on hand that can be rotated, so a clean one is always readily available. If you need to buy some extras, here are the best face masks we've worn, face masks from apparel and retail brands, Etsy's highest-rated options, and our favorites for running and working out.

Cloth masks can be machine-washed or hand-washed. When handling soiled masks, it's a good idea to wear disposable gloves and keep the masks away from your face. 

  1. If the mask has a pocket that holds a removable non-woven filter, remove the filter before washing the mask. If you are using a folded bandana or scarf that has detachable elastic ear bands, remove those as well.
  2. A mesh laundry bag is a great way to keep the masks from tangling if you're machine-washing them with other clothes. The mesh bag can go directly from the washer to the dryer.
  3. Sort the masks by color. Do not wash colored masks with white masks or clothes unless you are certain that the fabric is colorfast.
  4. Set the water temperature on your washer to hot and the cycle to normal. If you choose to hand-wash masks, fill the sink with hot water.
  5. Use a heavy-duty detergent like Persil or Tide that contains enough enzymes to break down soil and sweat on the interior surface of the mask. When hand-washing, add about one teaspoon of detergent to the basin of water before adding the masks.
  6. Use warm or cool water to rinse the masks.
  7. Cloth masks should be dried on the highest heat cycle in an automatic dryer. If you do not have a dryer, place the masks on a drying rack in direct sunlight.
  8. When the masks are dry, store them in a covered container or bag until you're ready to wear them.

How to disinfect cloth masks

In my years of testing different cleaning methods on fabrics in a textile lab, I learned that washing cotton in hot water and drying it on the high heat setting will effectively sanitize it. However, if someone in your household is ill or has a compromised immune system, you may want to add a disinfectant to the wash cycle when cleaning fabric masks to ensure that germs are killed.

The type of disinfectant you should use depends on your mask's fabric. While chlorine bleach is an excellent disinfectant, it can weaken and discolor fabrics if used incorrectly. Always read product labels and carefully follow directions. 

Due to the novel coronavirus, some of these products might be currently unavailable online or only available in-store. We've decided to keep the links as we've seen availability come in and out. 

Types of disinfectants to use 

  • Chlorine bleach such as Clorox can be used as a disinfectant in the wash cycle and is best suited for white cotton fabrics. Check the label to determine the strength of the bleach. To be effective as a disinfectant, there must be a 5.25% to 6.15% concentration of sodium hypochlorite. 
  • Phenolic disinfectants like Lysol Laundry Sanitizer can be used on white and colored fabrics. Phenolic disinfectants are usually added during the rinse cycle. This is currently unavailable but we're keeping the link here in case it becomes available when you're shopping. 
  • Pine oil disinfectants like Pine-Sol can be used on both white and colored fabrics. To be effective as a disinfectant in the wash cycle, the product must contain 80% pine oil.
  • Hospital-grade disinfectant sprays like Clyra Medical Technologies' Clyraguard add another level of protection to cloth masks (and any type of PPE). Clyra's is specifically designed to inactivate the COVID-19 virus while also keeping any fungi and bacteria at bay. This odorless, non-toxic spray is also rated for use by anyone with sensitive skin and is FDA registered and independently tested by the Galveston National Laboratory.
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