Everything You Need to Know About COVID-19 Mask Care

By Rachel RossLast Updated Oct 22, 2020 3:03:48 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: VIRGINIE LEFOUR/BELGA/AFP/Getty Images

Since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) initially advised wearing face coverings to reduce the spread of COVID-19, masks have become an essential part of daily life. Now, masks come in all shapes, sizes and materials.

However, part of wearing a mask is knowing how to care for it. But when should you clean, replace or dispose of your mask? And how do you do so effectively? Find out the general guidelines for proper mask care to limit contamination during the pandemic.

When to Change N95, Surgical and Disposable Face Masks

Understanding the differences between types of masks is helpful for taking proper care of them. Learn which masks are single-use and when it’s time to replace them.

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Photo Courtesy: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

N95: The CDC recommends wearing these tight-fitting masks for a period of no more than eight to 12 hours. Due to the outbreak and lack of supply, the CDC also advises healthcare workers to practice their company’s decontamination process to reuse N95 masks safely. Members of the general public need to dispose of their N95 masks following each use. Health experts urge people to save N95 masks for medical workers and choose another type whenever possible.

If an unused N-95 mask is stored properly, it can be worn past its expiration date. However, if there is damage to the straps, nosepiece or other parts of the mask, it won’t provide proper protection. All users should perform a seal check after putting on an N95 mask and should dispose of any mask that doesn’t seal properly.

Surgical: According to the CDC, healthcare personnel should change surgical masks after each patient. Although these FDA-approved masks are often reserved for medical workers, the general public can also use them. Surgical face masks are designed for one use, so don’t attempt to reuse them. For accurate shelf-life information, refer to the manufacturer’s guidelines to ensure the masks aren’t too old to work effectively.


Disposable: Face coverings that look like surgical masks are called disposable face masks. The difference? Disposable coverings aren’t FDA cleared or tested for medical use like surgical masks are. You’ll commonly find disposable face masks sold in bulk at local stores and online. For instance, Ace Hardware’s comfortable Blue Disposable Face Masks come in a pack of 50. Just like surgical face masks, disposable face coverings are single-use. Again, check with the manufacturer or on the masks’ packaging to find the expiration date.

How to Safely Remove and Discard N-95, Surgical and Disposable Face Masks

N-95, surgical and disposable face masks aren’t reusable or washable. It’s best to dispose of the masks after each wear or when they get dirty, wet, damaged or smelly.

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Photo Courtesy: SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/Getty Images

Follow these tips to take off your mask at home or work:

  • Only touch the ties or ear straps when you take off the mask.
  • Untie the strings behind your head or pull the bands from behind your ears.
  • Be careful not to touch the front of the mask or your face.
  • Cut the looped ear straps to prevent animals from getting caught in them.
  • Place the used mask in a closed bin.
  • Immediately wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water.

Signs You Need to Switch or Wash Homemade and Store-Bought Cloth Masks

Many people have been sewing cloth masks at home or buying them in stores or online. Amazon sells various fabric face masks for adults and children. Ideally, you want a mask made of cotton cloth with at least two layers of fabric. Change and wash cloth masks regularly if you wear them every day. Jade Flinn, a nurse educator for the Biocontainment Unit at Johns Hopkins Medicine, told The Washington Post, "Treat your mask like your underwear. You want to change it every day. Thinking about the moisture and the bacteria that’s building up in that mask itself, you don’t want to wear that mask again the next day."

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Photo Courtesy: GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images

However, a CDC spokesperson says if you’re only "taking the occasional trip to the pharmacy and supermarket, a weekly wash should be appropriate, as long as the mask isn’t visibly soiled." Ultimately, when you’re in doubt, clean your mask.


What about cloth masks with filters? Masks with pockets for filters can be easily purchased or made at home. Various companies sell specialized and effective filters (carbon or HEPA). Depending on how often you wear the face mask, change the filter when it gets "soiled, moist, or [has] lost shape." Replace it more often if you're using it daily to protect yourself from germs that have accumulated on the mask. For homemade filters, you can use coffee filters, paper towels and toilet paper, all of which need to be replaced after each wear.

Like other face coverings, scarves, bandanas and neck gaiters can be worn as masks all day until they get stained. When it's time to take them off for cleaning, it's important to be careful and follow the CDC's guidelines. Keep in mind that these face coverings aren’t as effective at providing protection as tighter-fitting N95, surgical, disposable and multi-layered cloth masks are.


How to Effectively Wash and Dry Cloth Face Masks

Similarly to disposable masks, you should only touch the ear loops of cloth masks while removing them and wash your hands immediately after. However, unlike disposable masks, cloth masks are reusable and washable, so it’s good to have extra masks on hand while you’re cleaning the soiled ones.

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Photo Courtesy: VIRGINIE LEFOUR/BELGA/AFP/Getty Images

Follow These Steps to Clean Your Mask Properly With a Washer and Dryer:

  • It’s safe to put your mask in the washing machine and dryer with your regular laundry.
  • Add your regular detergent.
  • Use the warmest settings on the washer and dryer that are safe for the cloth.
  • Dry the item completely.
  • Store in a dry, cool place

How to Clean Your Mask by Hand:

  • Use a bleach solution that contains 5.25%–8.25% sodium hypochlorite.
  • If you don’t have a bleach product, create a mixture by combining five tablespoons of 5.25%–8.25% bleach in one gallon of room temperature water.
  • Soak your mask in the bleach mix for five minutes.
  • Rinse thoroughly with room temperature water.
  • Lay the mask flat to dry completely (in direct sunlight, if possible).

Use this guide to stay safe when wearing and replacing your face masks. It’s important to know how to properly handle different face coverings, whether you’re using an N95 or a cloth mask. Reminder: If the mask gets sweaty or dirty, you need to throw it out or wash it. If you have any doubts, change or clean it.


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