Each type of face covering has a different method, and knowing what to do with them really matters.
To slow the spread of COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends the use of cloth face coverings in public settings where appropriate social distancing could be difficult to maintain, like in line at the grocery store or pharmacy. The purpose, according to the CDC, is to “protect other people, in case you’re infected.”
Even simple activities like talking could transmit droplets that behave like aerosol and could spread COVID-19, as demonstrated in a visualization video preliminary experiment detailed in The New England Journal of Medicine published on Wednesday, April 15. The video experiment, using laser light-scattering technology, involves a researcher talking, both with and without a facial covering, and then with a slightly damp washcloth over the mouth, and appeared to show a reduction in the visible droplets when a facial covering was worn. This visual experiment illustrated the benefits that facial coverings can provide in real-life situations.
Since the goal is to prevent airborne droplets from spreading, the CDC offers several guidelines to ensure people wear and use their cloth face coverings correctly. For example, it should fully cover a person’s nose and mouth, be secured with ties or ear loops, and include multiple layers of fabric. While the cloth mask should fit snugly, it should also allow you to breathe.
There are also recommendations for washing or disposing of masks or cloth face coverings, depending on the type you use. The first thing to know is how you remove, store, wash, or dispose of your mask or cloth face-covering matters.
Cassandra M. Pierre, a physician specializing in infectious diseases, and medical director of public health programs at Boston Medical Center, says since a mask can contain respiratory secretions on both the inside and outside, it’s important to make sure potentially harmful pathogens don’t come into contact with the environment.
So, what happens when you take your face covering off? You need to decide whether you’ll reuse or dispose of your mask. Whether you’re using a surgical mask, a handmade cloth face covering, or an N95 respirator, here are the best practices for taking care of them and disposing of them.
What to do with used surgical masks
Given the mask shortage, Michael Chang, an infectious disease specialist at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Science Center in Houston, says some medical providers are reusing surgical masks for the same patient for at least one day, or one shift, then switching out masks between different patients whenever possible. These health care workers undergo training and education for safely removing and reusing masks.
Since studies haven’t confirmed if it’s at all possible to safely wash surgical masks so they remain effective, Chang doesn’t recommend trying to wash and dry them at home. Instead, use time to your advantage.
If you have to re-use, “the best option would be to leave it stored in a container in the contaminated area for 72 hours. You don’t want it to be air-tight as air circulation helps with drying and may help inactivate the virus,” he says. However, Chang emphasizes that throwing away surgical masks would be better.
If you don’t have to reuse a surgical mask, as they’re designed to be disposable, Pierre recommends folding it in half to contain secretions on the inside, then putting it in a plastic bag or rolling it up in a tissue before throwing it away.
What to do with reusable cloth face coverings
The CDC recommends people routinely wash cloth face coverings in a washing machine, depending on the frequency of use. According to Pierre, a reusable cloth mask should be washed after each wear. When you take it off, fold it in half to contain the inner secretions and deposit it into a laundry bin, one ideally with a lid that you can close, if you aren’t able to wash it immediately.
Pierre says there’s no need to wash cloth masks separately from other clothes. “If you’re dumping them into a washing machine and then putting them into a dryer, that should effectively kill the virus,” she says. The water temperature for the washing machine cycle should be warm or hot, according to Pierre.
No washing machine at home? Make sure to practice routine, thorough hand-washing hygiene if you’re hand-washing your mask with warm or hot water in the sink.
Lastly, always keep an eye on the integrity of the fabric between wears if you use a bandana or DIY cloth mask. “With repeated cycles of laundering, they can become thinner over time, which means an even lower barrier to prevent transmission,” she says. “If you feel like it’s becoming thinner, it’s probably time to get a new cloth mask for better protection.”
What to do with N95 respirator masks
N95 respirator masks are in short supply. If you’re not a health care worker and you are in possession of unused N95 respirator masks, consider donating them to a health care facility. “Given the high-risk patients we’re seeing, we really want to preserve those N95s for health care workers,” Pierre says. “It’s really important for us to preserve that stock so we can continue to care for our patients.
The best practices for effectively decontaminating N95 respirators are still developing, but in a study published April 15, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) validated four kinds of decontamination methods for health care facilities for N95 respirator masks: UV light, 70 percent ethanol spray, 158 degrees Fahrenheit heat, and vaporized hydrogen peroxide (VHP).
The study found that ethanol spray damaged the mask’s fit after two decontamination sessions, UV and heat did the same after three sessions, and suggested that VHP appeared to be the best method to retain the integrity of mask for up to three reuses and decontamination sessions.
Still, keep in mind N95’s are meant for single use. “The longer you keep and use it the more it may lose filtration ability, fit, and breathability,” Pierre says. “Depending on what you’re noticing, you have to examine it before you use it to make sure you have a good seal and it still fits.”
When you throw your N95 away, dispose of it the same way you would a surgical mask, wrapping it in a tissue or a plastic bag and putting it in a receptacle, ideally one with a lid.
*All image from pexel