We're all wearing face masks for everything from sporadic grocery runs and necessary commutes to socially distant walks. It’s important to remove face coverings correctly and wash your hands after handling a used face covering, but according to the CDC, you should also clean your face mask after each use. To find out how to properly clean and sanitize face masks, we talked to Purvi Parikh, MD, an immunologist and allergist with Allergy & Asthma Network in New York City, Diann Peart, PhD, the founder of cleaning line Truce, and Gwen Whiting and Lindsey Boyd, co-founders of The Laundress. Whether you've bought your PPE from brands that give back or DIYed them yourself, here's everything you need to know to clean every type of face mask.
How to clean cloth face masks
Both hand washing and machine washing are suitable for cleaning cloth face masks, per CDC guidelines. If you machine wash, Whiting recommends putting your cloth mask in a mesh washing bag ($15; amazon.com) first to protect it from snagging in the machine. You can include your face covering with your next laundry load, and use regular laundry detergent and the warmest appropriate water setting for the cloth used to make the face covering.
If you don’t have access to a washing machine, you can also hand wash your mask in a washing basin ($39; amazon.com) or a clean sink. “Before you start washing, make sure to remove dirt and grime from the sink,” says Boyd. “Once you’ve cleaned the sink, make sure the drain is closed to keep the water afloat. Fill it with hot water, add one capful of detergent, and gently agitate the water with your hands to create a soapy solution. Let that sit for 30 minutes. Once you soak the face covering in the solution for five minutes, rinse thoroughly until the water is no longer soapy."
Once you’re done washing, do not wring! Instead, gently squeeze between your palms or press against the side of the sink. You can use the highest heat setting in the dryer to dry it, but Whiting recommends air drying by laying the mask completely flat in order to protect the elastic.
How to clean surgical masks and N-95 respirators
N-95 masks are better left reserved for medical personnel, so if you have extra, you may want to consider donating them. For one, they’re in short supply, but they are also impossible to wash. “If you get them wet, the mask loses its filtration capabilities and is no longer effective,” says Dr. Parikh. According to the CDC, N-95s can be worn up to five times by the same person, unless it becomes damaged or heavily soiled.
“You can reuse a surgical mask until it becomes wet or dirty. If you have multiple, consider rotating them every five days as that is how long the virus stays on surfaces,” says Dr. Parikh.
Can UV light disinfect face masks?
Yes, UV rays can disinfect your mask. However, using UV as the sole form of sanitization isn’t the safest method, says Peart. “If you have time on our hands, sunlight is great, but it takes a long time (and that time frame is unclear). Since UV can only disinfect what it shines on, any shadows cast by a mask’s tiny folds might prevent those spots from being decontaminated.” It’s best to leave air-drying in the sun as an additional form of cleaning (in addition to washing).
Special UV machines, like Coral UV 3-in-1 Sanitizer ($169; coraluv.com), are another option. Dr. Parikh advises exposing the mask to at least 30 minutes of UV light. You can also use this method to sanitize items like your phone and keys.
Can you cook your face mask?
Boiling your face mask can result in the degradation of fibers in your face mask. However, a study published in the Journal of the International Society for Respiratory Protection showed that dry heating for 30 minutes at 158 degrees F (70 C) or above can effectively destroy the virus without degrading the fibers.
When disinfecting your masks at home, experts recommend placing masks in an oven bag or a pressure cooker during heating, rather than directly inside of the oven. A study conducted at Stonybrook University has confirmed the results of dry heat oven tests, but they acknowledged that their ovens were equipped with air filters that would prevent any traces of the virus escaping the oven. Because there isn’t enough information released on airborne infection, you may want to resort to closed cooking methods to prevent exposing your kitchen to viral particles.
Is microwaving face masks to eliminate germs effective?
All experts agree that microwaving your face mask is not a recommended practice. While microwave appliances are used in hospitals to sanitize equipment, experts note that these are much stronger than your typical home model. According to a recent April study, microwaving can partially melt the filter on N-95 masks, which will render it useless. If your face mask has any metal, such as the flexible strips at the nose bridge, this might also pose a fire hazard. And while cloth masks can be microwaved, you can’t be sure that the rays will evenly penetrate the cloth at the right heat and wattage needed. In other words, leave the bacteria microwaving to the professionals.
Can you use bleach on your face mask?
Since bleach can destroy the static charge within surgical and N-95 masks, bleaching them is a hard no. Although you can use bleach on cloth masks, according to the CDC, be sure the bleach you’re using does not irritate your skin or breathing. CDC guidelines advise checking the label to see if your bleach is intended for disinfection and safe to use. First, ensure the bleach product is not past its expiration date. You should also make sure that your bleach isn’t mixed with ammonia or any other cleansers—this could become a respiratory irritant that is harmful when inhaled.
Since some chlorine bleaches can be damaging to fibers, Whiting recommends The Laundress’ All-Purpose Bleach Alternative ($15; amazon.com) on cloth face masks, which is an oxygen bleach that gives an extra boost of clean when activated by hot water.
When it's time to get rid of a face mask
As the name implies, single-use face masks should be properly disposed of after one wear. But as long as you’re cleaning them properly, cloth face masks should last you quite a while. “You can keep reusing them as you would with clothing—until it’s damaged with holes or tattered,” says Dr. Parikh. “Surgical or N-95 masks need to be discarded once soiled, wet, or it starts to lose its elasticity.”
“Don't throw your soiled or damaged face mask in the garbage,” adds Peart. “It may contain dangerous germs. Instead, wash the mask, dry it on the highest setting, fold it up, and place it in a sealed plastic bag before placing it in the garbage.”