The demand for face masks during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented.
Personal protective equipment has become a must and a new normal; we all have to wear face masks to protect ourselves and others from the virus transmission.
But, the demand for face masks has made them scarce or even unavailable in some parts of the world. That is why everyone is asking the question; can I reuse my mask and how do I store it between use?
Reusing and storing the face masks is a recommended practice as stated by the CDC and the WHO.
Some masks should be reserved for the health care staff and first responders, while the general public should reuse the masks they have before obtaining new ones.
So, in the following paragraphs we’ll take a look at how you can store your mask between use, and how long should you use the same mask. Let’s get started!
Note: In this article, we will only talk about masks that are recommended by the WHO and the CDC, and the masks that are suitable against COVID-19 virus.
General Safety Practices For Face Mask Use
Before we get into the very proper (re)use and storage of face masks, we’d like to first talk a little bit about general safety practices regarding facemask use and reuse. For example, here’s how we should safely handle our face masks before, during and after wearing them;
- Face masks should be used and worn only by one person. The same goes for reuse, even after the mask has been cleaned, sanitized, or decontaminated.
- Face masks should not be worn if you’ve been exposed to someone else’s coughing or sneezing. This mostly applies to health care workers and first responders, especially if they’ve been in contact with a COVID-19 patient.
- Face masks shouldn’t be touched while wearing them. This especially applies to the front of the mask, since this is the most exposed part of the mask (when we talk about being directly exposed to airborne particles and aerosol transmission).
- Hand washing and general hand hygiene are essential after putting or removing a mask. The same goes for when you touch the masks you’re wearing; hands should be washed immediately.
- Before using the masks, everybody should inspect it for damage and ensure the mask’s physical integrity. One should also check the seal and headbands or earloops, depending on what type of mask you’re wearing. The masks should also not be dirty or visibly stained.
- After using a mask, make sure to remove it by only handling the headbands or earloops. Avoid touching the front of the mask or the nose piece. Hand hygiene is essential after removing the mask.
How To Store A Used Face Mask?
So, what exactly does it mean to ‘store a mask’. Well, according to the CDC, masks being stored means they’re packed or put away before or after use. This surely applies to masks that are to be used again or reused for several times. Mask storage is necessary to avoid damage or deforming of the mask, as well as to avoid cross-contamination. So, how exactly are we supposed to store our masks?
According to CDC, used masks should be hanged in a designated storage area, where they can be kept clean and breathable. We could also store our masks in clean containers, or paper bags between uses. This should minimize the damage or the potential of cross-contamination. The containers or paper bags acting as storage are for the masks should be regularly replaced, disposed of, or cleaned. But, are there any other ways we can store masks safely? Here are some tips;
- To avoid people touching or using your mask, try to store it in a labeled paper bag or container. You can even label the mask itself by writing down your name on it.
- As you store the mask, try to fold the front side before placing it in a container or paper bag. Unfortunately, this is not possible with every mask; you can do this with cloth, homemade masks, or surgical masks.
- Make sure to store your mask in a dry location. Humidity will make your mask less functional and prone to quicker deterioration and damage-susceptibility.
- Try to use at least two masks, and try to rotate them throughout the week. This means that you’ll use the Mask #1, for example, on Monday, and Mask #2 on Tuesday, and so on.
- If you don’t have the time to store the mask in a previously-mentioned manner (because you’re at work or having a lunch break), you can place the mask on a clean paper towel and cover it with it as well. This should do the job until you’re done with a break or with lunch.
Note: We recommend you try out the so-called mask storage boxes. These plastic boxes are small, thin and portable. They’re made to fit your mask and keep it protecte and stored.
You can carry the box in your bag, car, or even in your pocket. These boxes can prevent secondary pollution, or even cross-contamination.
How To Reuse A Mask?
At the very beginning of the pandemic, it was believed that all masks should be disposed of after only one use. However, after it has been established that there is a great shortage of masks (for the general public as well as for health care staff), the CDC and the WHO changed their beliefs regarding mask use and reuse.
Generally, it has been concluded that masks should be suitable for extended use or reuse. However, different rules apply to different types of masks. So, let’s take a look at how each of the recommended COVID-19 masks should be reused (and for how long);
N95 Mask Reuse
N95 masks can be reused up to 5 times while being properly stored between each use!
According to the CDC and the WHO, N95 masks can be reused for a limited number of times. NIOSH, as well as other disease control organizations and centers, agree that N95 masks can be reused up to 5 times. In these 5 times of use, you don’t have to clean your mask. However, if the mask is dirty and there is visible damage to it, you should dispose of the mask and use a new one.
Moreover, N95 mask reuse only applies if the mask is not damaged, if it is free of stains and bodily fluids and if it hasn’t been exposed to COVID-19 patients. Other than that, the mask can be reused, and between uses should be properly stored (as instructed previously). If you’ve been exposed to other people sneezes, coughs or COVID-19 patients, make sure to place a mask in a plastic bag and dispose of it in the trash.
When it comes to the decontamination of N95 masks, there aren’t currently practices that are recommended. Some studies show that decontamination of N95 masks for health care staff can be done using UV light, 70% ethanol sprays, exposure to heat, or vaporized hydrogen peroxide. However, these decontamination methods are yet to be put to test.
Note: Some people tend to spray alcohol or bleach solution onto their mask and let it dry, as a form of decontamination method.
However, studies show that spraying alcohol or bleach solution onto the N95 masks lowers its filtering efficiency from 95% to 56% (for alcohol), and 75% (for bleach solution spray). So, this is not a safe disinfecting method, and we do NOT recommend it!
KN95 Mask Reuse
KN95 masks are suitable for extended daily use, or reuse for numerous days (recommended up to 5 days, just like N95 masks)!
KN95 masks are initially created for one-time, single-use. However, this disposable design seems to be fit for reuse in cases of mask unavailability or shortage. That is why the CDC recommended that respirator masks like KN95, as well as N95, should be reused for an extended period in one day, or reused for several days.
‘Extended period’ means that a mask can be used for numerous times in one day, only if stored properly between each use. This doesn’t mean that you can simply store your KN95 mask in your pocket or bag; the mask should be placed in a plastic or paper bag, or a small, clean container. After the extended use of the mask for a day, the mask should be disposed of, properly.
Note: keep in mind that the longer you use a mask, the more it loses its performance and efficiency. So, if you notice that your mask is not fitting properly, or that it is not as breathable as it used to be, make sure to replace it. Not to mention that visible damage or staining requires immediate disposal and replacement of the mask.
Surgical Mask Reuse
Surgical masks are made for one-time use and should not be reused!
Surgical masks are not made to be reused. They’re made for one-time use, after which the masks should be disposed of. They’re generally made for health care settings and situations. Therefore, extended use and reuse of surgical masks is not recommended by any of the health organizations and disease control centers.
However, sometimes, during extreme shortages, surgical masks can be reused as a last-resort measure. Even then, people should be reluctant about this and should rather opt for homemade masks and leave surgical ones for healthcare staff and first responders.
Cloth Mask Reuse
Cloth masks can be used for an extended period or washed and reused!
Unlike the previous, medical-grade face masks, cloth, or homemade masks can be washed and reused, according to the CDC. Cloth masks can be washed in a washing machine, or washed by hand. Either way, they should be washed by laundry detergent or in a bleach solution to achieve proper disinfection. After washing, cloth masks need to be left to dry or dried in air drier, exposed to the highest heat setting. This should be enough to have a clean mask again.
Now, you should be washing your cloth mask every day. This can be rather tiring and demanding, but that is the only acceptable way in which these masks can be reused. On the other hand, if the cloth mask you’re wearing has been exposed directly to coughing and sneezing, or a COVID-19 patient, we recommend you make a new one. In that case, we’re not sure how washing and sanitizing is effective.
Note: N95, KN95, and surgical masks should be preserved for health care staff, health care facilities, and first responders. These people and settings are more likely to be exposed to COVID-19, so the workers need to be properly protected, especially during the times of mask shortage! Not to mention that we need to have medical workers protected so that they can continue taking care of us.