person washing a face mask

The Importance of Washing Your Face Mask

Handmade Masks

An interview with Dr. Keeling of Quality Care ER in Paris, TX

By now, wearing a face mask has become part of our daily routine much like putting on our clothes each day. But what many people may not consider is the importance of washing your mask just as you do your laundry. Keep in mind your mask is covering your nose and mouth creating a warm, moist environment for germs to reside. Not to mention the environmental elements such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi that can become attached. It’s crucial that you know how to clean your mask properly and routinely. We caught up with Doctor Keeling of Quality Care ER to discuss what can happen if you don’t wash your mask and how often you should actually be cleaning it.

Why is washing our face masks so important?

Washing your mask is just as important, if not MORE important, than washing any article of clothing.  We don’t know exactly how long viruses and bacteria can live on fabrics, but some experts feel it may be up to 8-12 hours on a cloth mask!  Imagine after a long day of mask-wearing how many germs you could possibly have on your mask!  Yuck.  You don’t want to put that dirty mask back on your face.

Could wearing a mask for a prolonged time cause me to become sick?

You will have to remember that surgeons and OR nurses and staff wear masks for long periods of time on a daily basis, and there has never been a concern really for them wearing a mask. Some people in other countries wear masks or cloth coverings over their faces regularly, even before COVID, and there have been no concerns in these situations either.   There have been no conclusive studies that support that prolonged wearing of CLEAN masks is harmful to the wearer. Of course, not washing your mask and wearing it without washing it between uses is not healthy.  

There are always exceptions to mask-wearing, and some people feel anxious or short of breath when wearing a mask, or they can’t wear them for other medical reasons. Appropriate considerations are usually made for these individuals that do feel very uncomfortable wearing a mask.

How often should I wash my mask?

The best practice would be to wash your mask after every use. Washing cloth masks after every use would not be feasible for busy families, so you should aim to wash your mask as often as you can. Disposable masks should be thrown away after every use.

What’s the best way to wash a mask?

Washing your mask can be as simple as tossing it in with your laundry using your regular detergent. Just make sure you’re using warm or hot water to help kill any bacteria that may be residing on your mask. Another option is to wash it by hand using laundry soap, hand soap, or a bleach solution. The CDC has put out a great guide on washing your mask along with how to prepare your bleach solution. 

Also, dry your mask on the highest dryer setting possible and do not remove it until completely dry.  If air-drying, lay your mask flat and allow it to dry completely.  Placing it in direct sunlight helps it dry as well.

Is it better to use disposable masks instead of fabric masks?

As I mentioned above, disposable masks aren’t always a good option for everyone.  Because they can get expensive and sometimes harder to find than a cloth mask, some people use them over and over again and after a few days, they can be really dirty and filled with germs. I think it’s better to use what is more readily available and what’s more suitable for your situation.  

How often should I be changing my mask daily?

Many people wear the same mask all day long. Although best practice is to change your mask after each use, many of us take our masks off and on several times a day, so it would not always be feasible to change your mask after each use. As long as you take precautions when removing and replacing your mask, one mask can last you all day.  Wash your hands before removing and replacing the mask, don’t touch the mask itself (use the ear loops), and place your mask on a clean surface until you are ready to put it back on.

What can happen if I forget to wash my mask often?

Your mask can get dirty and filled with viruses, bacteria, and even fungi!  You don’t want that up against your face where you can breathe that into your nose and mouth and down into your respiratory system.

Is a child more at-risk due to a dirty mask than an adult?

Well, I would say that a child is probably more at risk of having a dirty mask than an adult simply because kids tend to get dirtier than adults anyway.  They play outside more and tend to touch their face and masks more than an adult. Kids should wash their school mask every night! 

Can’t I just spray my mask down with sanitizer and be on my way?

No, this could actually be toxic to you. Not all disinfectant solutions are the same and could potentially contain harmful chemicals. It’s better to just wash your mask in a sink with warm soapy water and let it air dry.

Does wearing a mask make me more at-risk for a cold or flu?

Properly wearing a CLEAN mask can actually make you at less risk of catching some other types of respiratory illnesses.  A mask may not stop all viruses, but viruses are usually transmitted through larger particles in secretions from someone speaking, coughing, or sneezing. If you can reduce the transmission of these larger particles through the mask, these particles will be caught in the mask and can be washed away when you clean your mask.