Using and looking after your reusable face mask

Many of us are now wearing a mask as part of our everyday routine, with some state governments making masks a legal requirement during times of high covid-19 transmission. People in Victoria have to wear a mask in public at the moment and it’s possible that other regional governments will mandate them as time goes on in a bid to control the spread of the virus.

This time last year, we only thought about surgical face masks when we went to the dentist or if we were about to undergo a surgical procedure. Now, we’re all discussing styles, fabric prints, how to avoid sore ears from the straps and how to make your own.

Looking after reusable masks

You may well have started off by buying and wearing single–use surgical masks, but as supplies of these items became scarce or you found you were having to restock with annoying regularity, you might have adopted reusable masks instead.

Whether you bought reusable masks for yourself and your family or whether you dusted off your sewing machine and made a batch, your reusable masks are, well, meant to be used several times. This means that they need to be washed and looked after so that you can carry on using them effectively for a while.

Surgical masks are strictly single–use 

Surgical masks are for strictly one-time use, so they should be carefully discarded. However, if you've got one that is made out of cloth and/or is reusable, these should be washed after every use. Re-using a cloth mask without washing is risky because it can become contaminated or may not be as effective in protecting you.

If you’re using a disposable or surgical mask then you must remove it after each use, before discarding it into a sealed bin and washing your hands. These masks lose effectiveness after a few hours and so it’s much safer for everyone if you bag and bin each mask when you take it off.

Reusable masks, on the other hand, can be used several to many times as long as they’re washed and dried after each use. It’s not worth the risk of reusing one of these masks without washing and drying it because you don’t know if any viral particles are on the outside and whether they’re inactive or not.

Fast virus fact

Viruses can’t reproduce on their own; instead they invade the nuclei of our cells, where they hijack our genetic material to replicate themselves. This means that they can’t be considered to be truly alive and is why we talk about inactivating the virus rather than killing it.

You need to have at least two masks per person in your household so that you always have one to wear while the other (or others) are being washed and are drying. Rotating your masks also spreads out the wear and tear on the fabric, which means that your set of masks is as effective as it can be for longer.

Washing your face mask

Unless you’re going to hand wash your face mask straight after use, then wash your hands after placing the mask in the wash basket or the washing machine. 

It’s important to find out if the fabric of the mask can handle temperatures above 40C, as the World Health Organisation recommends machine washing at 60C to be really sure you’ve inactivated any viral particles. 

You also need to use a gentle cycle so that you’re not distorting or stretching the fabric or the straps. Distorting the weave of the fabric may make it less effective by causing small gaps between fibres.

If you prefer to hand wash your masks, then use water that’s as hot as you can handle, with plenty of detergent. There’s lots of evidence that simple detergents inactivate the covid-19 virus, so using very hot water is an extra layer of security.

Rinse your mask really well after washing so that there’s no detergent residues. It’s not recommended to use a fabric conditioner on your mask as it could cause reactions on your skin or in your airways.

Drying your reusable mask

Once your mask is washed and thoroughly rinsed, it’ll need to be dried before you use it again. You can use a tumble dryer if you like, but you can also line–dry it or leave it in a warm sunny spot in your home. Letting the mask dry naturally is the most practical way, unless you already use your tumble dryer several times each day.

In between uses, you should store your masks in individual airtight bags so that they’re easily portable and also so they’re less likely to become contaminated by virus particles.

Donning and doffing your face mask

Always wash and dry your hands before and after handling your face mask so that you’re not transferring virus onto the mask while putting it on, or transferring virus from the mask onto your work surfaces after doffing it.

Handle the mask by the straps only if you can, both when donning and doffing, so that the “business area” that covers your face has minimal risk of contamination.

While you’re wearing the mask, try to avoid touching and moving it. This can be difficult, as some masks aren’t a perfect fit. If you find a particular mask slips or otherwise annoys you, then you might need to make some slight alterations to it so that it’s more comfortable.

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