How Often Should We Be Washing Our Face Masks?

Photographed by Poppy Thorpe.
My favourite purchase of 2020 was a pack of silk face masks I bought from a shop on Etsy. I wear them every time I leave my house, always keeping one in my purse just in case I forget to grab one on my way out. After every few days, I toss them into the wash with the rest of my clothes, but every so often I wonder: Am I washing my face masks enough?
Jessica Malaty Rivera, MS, infectious disease epidemiologist and science communication lead at The COVID Tracking Project, says to think of your face masks like they're underwear. "Just change it after every wear," she says.
She has seven masks she likes to keep in circulation, one for each day of the week. That's a little extreme, but having at least two in rotation is ideal, so you have at least one clean mask available at all times.
Rivera says that you can use one reusable masks for an entire day — even if you go out in the morning, come home for a pit stop, then go out again at night, that's fine — and throw it in the laundry before bed.
The same is true for disposable masks, except swap "washing machine" for "trash can." Use one a day, throw it out, and grab a fresh one the next day. But Rivera urges everyone to try reusable masks, if possible. "I don't recommend using surgical masks because they're not very environmentally friendly," she says. "Use them sparingly and cut the straps [when you throw them away]."
Washing your reusable face masks less than once per use won't increase your chances of catching COVID-19. It's just... kind of gross, and could result in maskne or weird smells. But it's better to go out in a dirty mask than to skip the mask altogether. "I don't think that if you're wearing a two-day old mask, you're going to be X% more susceptible to the virus," Rivera explains. "You just want to be wearing a mask that is properly covering your face with proper materials."
You can wash your reusable mask as you would any other fabric item — throw it in the laundry, or wash it by hand with soap and water. It's best to use hot water and to dry it using a high heat, but, "Soap is an amazing destroyer of this virus," Rivera says. "You don't have to worry about it being such extreme sterilizing conditions for you to kill the virus if it's on it."
To keep your mask clean throughout your time wearing it, you'll want to avoid messing with it. Try not to touch the outside of the mask — if you need to adjust it or take it on and off, make sure to only touch the straps. And it should go without saying, but don't share it. "Masks are for individuals," Rivera says. "You wouldn't share your underwear."
You should refresh your supply of reusable masks every six to 12 months, or whenever you can see light through the cloth when you hold the cloth up to a light source, Natasha Bhuyan, MD, a regional director and provider with One Medical, told Refinery29. That's a sign that the material is compromised.
Even with the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, we're going to be wearing masks for a lot longer. They work, and they're what's going to help shepherd us across the finish line of this thing. And whether you love them or hate them, a fresh-smelling mask is infinitely more pleasant than a dirty one.

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