Unlike cloth face masks, disposable masks like surgical masks and N95 respirators should be thrown out after one use.
As a last-resort measure in emergency situations, it is possible to extend the life of a disposable face mask if extreme care is taken.
If you use a reusable mask, make sure to wash it once a day and consider a double-mask with two-to three layers of fabric, for added protection.
Whether or not you should reuse a face mask depends on the type of mask.
Can you reuse a breathable, washable cloth mask? Yes, no problem. Just follow these CDC guidelines on how to wash a cloth mask.
But what about a disposable mask, like medical-grade surgical masks and N95 respirators?
However, if we learned anything from the dire mask shortage from early in the COVID-19 pandemic, it is possible. Here's what you need to know.
Why N95 and surgical masks should not be reused
The two most common types of disposable masks - medical-grade surgical masks and N95 respirators - also happen to be the most effective type of mask in preventing infection, which explains why the CDC recommends they be reserved for medical and frontline workers.
However, these masks are most effective during first-time use, which is why you should not reuse them. If reused, these masks can actually increase your risk of infection because of how they work:
Surgical masks are loose-fitting face coverings that act as barriers to protect the mouth and nose from potential contaminants, typically used by medical professionals as personal protective equipment (PPE). They can also be used by sick patients to minimize the spread of disease from large-particle droplets that are coughed and breathed out.
N95 respirators are tight-fitting masks that filter out at least 95% of the particles in the air in order to minimize the wearer's exposure to viruses and bacteria. They're worn by healthcare workers and first responders who are caring for the sick and don't want to get infected.
Important: The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends removing a mask once it is damp from your breath, and never reusing a single-use mask.
Because these masks act as a physical barrier against respiratory droplets and germs, they can also transfer those particles onto other surfaces. This makes disposable masks a potential hazard in spreading and transmitting disease if reused or not properly discarded.
Guidelines for reusing disposable masks in emergency situations
You should avoid reusing disposable masks as much as possible. However, if you're in an emergency situation, here's what you can do to minimize infection:
Be careful when taking the mask off. If you need to adjust your mask, make sure you wash your hands before you do or use a hand sanitizer that has at least 60% alcohol in it. When taking your mask off, make sure to do so by the straps and avoid touching the actual mask directly.
Make sure you're storing your mask in a clean, breathable area. Avoid putting your mask on dirty surfaces, including inside your purse, on an uncleaned surface, or holding it in your hand. When not in use, the mask should be stored in a breathable container, like a paper bag or open tupperware container. Plastic bags or other storage containers that seal off air completely should not be used.
Only reuse your mask. A surgical mask or N95 respirator should only be reused by the same person, never shared between others.
Extended use is better than reuse. It's better to leave a respirator on for the whole shift rather than taking it on and off. This minimizes contact between your hands, the mask, and other surfaces thereby reducing the risk of spreading infectious particles. The CDC guidelines say that there's no way to predict a safe number of reuses, so medical professionals should use their judgement.
If you absolutely have to reuse a disposable mask, sanitize the mask as much as you can first. A 2020 study by the NIH found that you can sanitize N95 masks using UV rays (a form of light) and vaporized hydrogen peroxide to effectively disinfect a mask. As a rule of thumb, you should avoid using a liquid disinfectant as it could cause harm if you inhale it.
Important: While masks can protect against airborne illnesses, you should still be cautious of touching surfaces that may contain traces of bacteria or viruses. As touching an infected surface and then your face (even with a mask on) can increase your risk of infection
Surgical masks and respirators don't suddenly expire, although their fibers and elastics bands - which are important for getting a snug fit - can deteriorate over time. Hans Rechsteiner, MD, a general surgeon at Burnett Medical Center estimates that masks are at their best within five years of manufacture, although an older mask is certainly better than nothing.
You should also throw out masks (reusable or disposable) that have any holes or damage that could compromise their effectiveness. Soiled masks should also be thrown out.
What masks can I reuse?
If you can wash a mask with water and soap frequently without damaging it, you can reuse it. This includes store-bought cloth masks and homemade masks. It's worth noting that if you are making your own mask, the CDC's guidelines urge you to make sure the mask fits snuggly on the face and that it fully covers your mouth and nose.
What the research says: A 2013 study found that homemade masks made from cotton t-shirts are only about one-third as effective as surgical masks in preventing infection, but they still "significantly reduce" the amount of germs being spread by the wearer. Moreover, a 2020 analysis found that a combination of two or more materials increased the effectiveness of homemade masks. For example, the analysis found that the combination of a tea towel and fleece jacket material had similar efficacy to that of a double-layer medical mask.
General tips for proper mask usage
Wearing a mask is necessary to reduce exposure to and infection from air-borne diseases like COVID-19. However, if not worn properly, they won't be effective.
Surgical masks and N95 masks are disposable medical grade masks that are the most effective in keeping out viruses and bacteria. They should be thrown out after one use and reserved for healthcare workers.
Important: The coronavirus pandemic is an evolving situation. For the most up-to-date guidelines on masks for the general public, consult the CDC.
Cloth masks and other homemade masks, while not as effective as medical masks, can be washed and reused. Make sure to wash them after each use with high heat and soap, and remove any filters while replacing them with new ones.
If daily washing doesn't fit in your schedule, rotate between multiple masks in between wash cycles.
"If you want to be extra safe, use three masks and rotate them daily, letting them sit out in a well-ventilated area to dry in the meantime so that the viruses die," Rechsteiner, says. "Because of severe shortages in some areas I believe that this is a safe and acceptable practice."
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