Wearing a cloth face mask can help slow the spread of the coronavirus, but proper use is key. Keeping your mask clean, and understanding how to safely put on and remove your mask can make you and others around you safer as you head out in public.
The good news: Cleaning a cloth mask can be as easy as dropping it in your washer with the rest of your clothes once you get home. Find out why you need a cloth face mask, how to choose one, and how to keep your mask clean and safe.
Why Should You Wear a Cloth Mask?
The Centers for Disease Control recommends wearing a cloth mask in public to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. You should wear a cloth face covering even if you don’t feel sick, as you could have the virus and not realize it.
“Masks protect other people from you,” says Andrew Roszak, executive director for the Institute for Childhood Preparedness. “Masks do not protect you from other people.”
A reusable cloth mask doesn’t offer the protection you’d get from a surgical mask or N95 respirator. But a good cloth mask can serve its intended purpose of minimizing the spread of your germs.
When you wear a mask, it reduces the risk of spreading respiratory droplets, which occur when you cough, sneeze, speak, laugh, or even just breathe. A cloth face cover can help contain the droplets before they spread into the air.
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What Makes a Good Cloth Mask?
When you’re choosing (or making) a cloth mask, fit is key. Your mask should be comfortable and completely cover your mouth and nose. Be careful to avoid masks that are too tight; you should still feel like you can breathe.
“Any covering that covers the mouth and the nose is effective,” says Jay Woody, chief medical officer of Intuitive Health and a founder of Legacy ER & Urgent Care. “This could be a bandana or cloth mask or surgical mask, they all do the job.”
Roszak says masks can be easily made at home from t-shirts and rubber bands. A mask with a few layers of fabric—like a t-shirt folded over itself a few times—can provide the best containment. A 100 percent cotton mask offers a cool, breathable, and washable material.
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When you buy these masks, five more will be donated to those in need.
Washing a Cloth Mask
Cloth masks need to be machine washed and dried thoroughly, ideally after each use, says Woody. That means if you’re going out every day—or even multiple times each day—you may need more than one mask so you’ll still have one even when you have a mask in the wash.
The easiest way to wash your cloth mask is to throw it in your washing machine along with your regular laundry. Soap and laundry detergent are effective at killing the coronavirus, as they break down the layer of lipid membranes of the virus and destroy it (so if you don’t have a washing machine, you can hand-wash your mask in the sink with hot water and detergent).
Roszak recommends using the hottest water your mask can safely tolerate and be sure to use detergent.
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A mesh laundry bag can help keep mask ear loops from tangling and protect the fabric from wear and tear.
Spraying your mask with bleach or any other cleaning product is not recommended, as they can be harmful if inhaled. If your mask starts looking worn, it may be time to replace it with a new one.
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If you happen to have an N95 mask or similar, do not try to clean it (it’s not possible to do it effectively at home).
Safely Wearing a Cloth Mask
Don’t get a false sense of security from wearing a cloth mask. Remember, masks are to contain your germs, not protect you from the germs of others. You should still maintain at least six feet of social distancing and wash your hands regularly, especially when putting on and removing your mask.
“Unfortunately, I witness individuals haphazardly removing their masks,” says Woody. “Their unwashed hands are touching the inside of the mask and then their hands touch their face. When this happens, the face mask becomes pointless. Additionally, if the person reuses the same face mask and has touched the inside of the mask, when they reapply their face mask, the germs have direct access to their mucous membranes.”
Woody’s recommendation for safely putting on and removing a face mask: Wash your hands every step of the way.
“Before you put your mask on, wash your hands,” he says “Before you remove your face mask, wash your hands. After you remove your face mask, wash your hands.”
That might sound like a lot of hand washing, but there’s a good reason for it. Securing or removing your mask with unwashed hands could introduce germs to the worst possible place: your face.
Once you’ve removed your face mask, drop it directly into your washer for cleaning with detergent and then, you guessed it: wash your hands.
Header image courtesy of Rike_ / E+ / Getty Images