This single question, posed in a company Slack channel, unleashed the veritable flood gates. People compared the smell to rotten paper or gauze, weird vinegar, a high-school soccer team bus, and simply “chemicals.” We were buoyed by the fact that we weren’t alone, and relieved to learn that we hadn’t been walking around with bad breath this whole time.
The natural next question: Is a smelly mask... okay?
“I get this question a lot from my patients, and it’s definitely an important one. My response is: How long have you been using the face mask?” says Darien Sutton, MD, an emergency physician at Bellevue Hospital in New York City.
The reason he asks is because an “off” smell is a telltale sign that it’s time to toss a disposable mask, or wash a reusable one.
“When you’re using a surgical mask, you’re breathing on it and your respiratory particles land on the mask. The bacteria in those particles can then grow and cause an odour you find distasteful,” Dr. Sutton explains.
It is okay to wear a disposable mask more than once, as long as you’re being careful not to contaminate yourself. That means removing your face mask correctly (from the back, not the front), and storing it in an out-of-the-way place. Dr. Sutton recommends hanging masks — disposable and reusable — on a coat hanger between uses.
To keep yourself safe, you can disinfect disposable masks between uses. “Put 60% isopropyl alcohol in a spray bottle and mist the mask, then leave it on a windowsill to dry," Dr. Sutton advises. "We know that alcohol and UV rays decrease viral particles." You can clean reusable masks in the washing machine.
But my coworkers and I were talking about fresh masks — just-ripped-the-plastic-off, brand-new masks that still make our nostrils pucker.
Dr. Sutton said this may be down to the chemicals masks are treated with to preserve them, so they don’t break down in storage. Right now, face masks are in higher demand than ever before. “We’re reaching to the back of the storage room,” Dr. Sutton notes. The masks currently on the market may have been sitting around for a while, which means they may smell more strongly of chemicals than usual.
While that’s not a bad thing, you also don’t necessarily want to be huffing those chemicals. So if your mask does have a strong smell, Dr. Sutton suggests letting it air out for a while before putting it on.
Many masks can expire too, Dr. Sutton notes. Check the box or the plastic sleeve yours came in for an expiration date, and if it has passed, toss it.
So basically, a little odour is very likely normal. It may simply mean your face mask is, erm, well-preserved. It may be a sign that it's time to retire a mask, or give it a good wash. But you can rest easy knowing that it's probably not your breath.