Tips and myths for mask care
A year ago, before COVID-19 landed on our doorstep, we could not have imagined a mask as an asset to our wardrobe, let alone wear one everywhere we go. Since they have become part of our everyday activities outside our homes, keeping masks clean is as important as wearing them. Mask wearing and cleaning tips are particularly timely in Massachusetts in response to the November 2 mask mandate announcement made by the Governor Baker administration.
We asked Mary Slater, RN, director of infection prevention at Cape Cod Healthcare, for her advice on the subject of mask cleanliness and dispelling myths about proper mask care.
- Treat your mask like an item of clothing. “Depending on the length of time you are wearing it would determine how often you need to clean it,” said Slater. “If you wear the mask just to go into the grocery store and that is the only environment you are going into outside of your home, it doesn’t have to be washed every time, but it should be done frequently.” If you are wearing it in an office or classroom all day, wash it every day. For short trips to the grocery store and other errands around town, Slater recommends washing your mask every two to three days. The same guideline holds true for disposable masks. “You can wear it for the same amount of time and then throw it away,” she said.
- Sneeze or cough with your mask on. While it may seem like you should remove your mask to cough or sneeze, Slater advised against it. She recommends that if you need to sneeze or cough while wearing a mask, it is a good idea to do it into your upper arm just as you would when not wearing a mask. “That is a very important time to leave your mask in place because the force of your sneeze or cough moves the mask away from your face and so germs spread outside of it. The idea with the mask is that it keeps the germs from going straight forward six to eight feet, which keeps it in the vicinity of you instead of going everywhere.” She added that this would be an instance when you would need to wash your mask when you get home. If the mask gets wet or dirty or moist for any reason, store in a sealed plastic bag and wash as soon as possible according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
- Wash in hot water and dry in high heat. “When washing the mask, use the warmest temperature you can use for the material in the mask, either warm or hot,” Slater said. “Put in the dryer on the highest heat it can handle.”
- Put your mask on with clean hands. “Before you put on a mask and before you take it off, wash or sanitize your hands,” Slater recommends. If you have hand sanitizer in your car you can use that before donning your mask. On your way out of the store, Slater suggests using the sanitizer at the door which will have a residual effect and prevent germs from building up even if you touch something in the meantime before you remove your mask.
- Proper storage is important. The way you store your mask in the car for another use is important, also. Slater reminds everyone that the outside of the mask is contaminated from other people coming towards you and spreading their germs to you. The inside of the mask is your own germs. “My concern would be putting it down everywhere in the vehicle and contaminating the vehicle,” Slater said. She suggests hanging it where it can be free from touching other areas. The CDC recommends keeping it in a dry, breathable bag such as a paper or fabric bag. When re-using your mask, make sure to keep the same side facing out.
Lastly, there have been a couple of myths floating around social media that need clarification.
- Myth: The sun’s ultraviolet rays will sanitize your masks when you hang them from your rearview mirror. It would be nice if this were true but it’s not, according to Slater. “The sunlight is filtered and not getting direct rays of the sun through our window or windshield,” she said. And while the sun feels hot enough on some days to sanitize the mask, Slater said, “the heat from the sun doesn’t disinfect.”
- Myth: Carbon dioxide will build up in the mask. While this can be true, the reason for CO2 buildup would be the material in the mask is too thick and it makes it difficult to breathe. “Make sure you have the right material you are using for your mask,” said Slater. “Whether you make your own or buy it at the store, if it is difficult to breathe, that’s not the right mask for you to be wearing. CO2 isn’t actually the biggest problem, it’s the ability to breathe through it (the mask) in the first place.”
One final reminder from Slater is to make sure your mask fits snugly around your face. If the ear loops are too big, Slater advises tying a knot in the ear loop, which makes the mask smaller to conform to the shape of your face.
More information about how to store, clean, choose and make masks is available on the CDC website.