Facemasks, Should they be Washed after every use and How Often?

Facemasks have become a necessity in the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic. 

It is now illegal to be on public transport, be in a taxi, be in an Uber or be in a public place without wearing a facemask.  Science appears to suggest that the surgical facemask provides the most protection, but these should be renewed after four hours of use.

The wearing of facemasks has become a controversial topic with many people citing civil liberty.  However, science shows that masks are essential to prevent the spread of the virus.  Dr Simon Costow, a senior lecturer in evidence based healthcare at the University of Portsmouth, says that the effectiveness of facemasks is clear, evidence exists out there, but do you have to wash them?

The answer is yes. Dr Raveena Kullar, an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologists points out that the purpose of the mask is to prevent the virus from spreading, so if there are virus particles on yours, wearing an unwashed mask is counterproductive and it is definitely recommended to wash the mask every day.

However, despite this advice, surface transmission is not thought to be the major vector of coronavirus spread.  The primary transmission mode is person to person contact.  The recommendation to wash your mask comes out of an abundance of caution as well as the object’s close proximity to respiratory output.

The CDC in America recommends that masks should be washed after each use.  It also recommends that masks should be removed correctly and hands should be washed or sanitised after handling or touching a used mask.  According to the CDC, taking off your mask correctly means handling it only by the ear loops or ties, folding it to be placed in the washing machine and washing your hands immediately after this procedure. 

Cloth masks can be washed by hand or in a washing machine.  Surgical masks cannot be washed and need to be discarded after single use.  There is very little peer review as to how to wash an N95 mask – some potential options include vaporised hydrogen peroxide, using dry heat or UV light.  None of these methods are particularly suitable for use at home. 

For cloth masks, if using a washing machine, the CDC recommends regular detergent and the warmest appropriate water setting for the cloth used to make the mask and if washing the mask by hand, they suggest preparing a bleach solution and soaking the mask in it for five minutes then rinsing in cool or room temperature water.  Mask filters should also be washed by hand. 

So how many times can you wash a mask?  Peter Richardson, a self-styled laundry expert says that a cloth mask can sustain around 100 washes if it is not run through the dryer and 50 if it is.  He also suggests that the elastic parts of the mask are likely to wear down more quickly than the actual cloth.  This is understandable. 

This self-styled laundry expert also recommends wearing facemasks made of cotton, which he says are more durable.  It is known that materials like silk or bandanas, albeit popular, are much less effective at preventing the spread of virus and do not last as long. 

Then there is a question of skin face sensitivity. 

It is suggested that if one is wearing a mask then if you can blow a match out or a candle directly in front of the mask then it is not an effective mask.

The London General Practice has always supported the wearing of facemasks, both in public and private places and recommends the use of surgical masks or cloth coverings which have three layers and are washed appropriately or renewed regularly.

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