How Often Should I Wash My Mask? And More Of Your Questions About Face Masks

Sign requiring mask for entry
Establishments across Chicago have posted signs requiring patrons wear masks for entry. Mackenzie Crosson / WBEZ
Sign requiring mask for entry
Establishments across Chicago have posted signs requiring patrons wear masks for entry. Mackenzie Crosson / WBEZ

How Often Should I Wash My Mask? And More Of Your Questions About Face Masks

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In the U.S. masks have been a source of controversy in the effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But in recent days they’ve become mandatory in more than half of U.S. states and even for all shoppers at stores like Target and WalMart. This comes as the nation is fighting a surge of COVID-19 cases that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chief Dr. Robert Redfield says we could get under control if the public would do one thing: wear masks.

So we thought this was an ideal time to move beyond the controversy and address some basic issues of proper mask care, handling and disposal.

Curious City recently fielded a handful of your questions on the matter and turned to experts and current research for answers.

Should I always wear a mask when I go outside?

The answer here mostly comes down to your ability to properly social distance, even when you are outside. The CDC recommends that people wear cloth face coverings while out in public and around people outside of their household, especially in settings where social distancing is difficult to maintain.

The Illinois Department of Public Health gets even more specific about this. Its guidance says, if you’re “alone or with close, household contacts” you don’t have to wear a mask when “running, walking in your neighborhood, mowing the lawn, [doing] yard cleanup, gardening, driveway car washing and other outdoor activities on your property.”

Dr. Amy Ray, the medical director of infection prevention and employee health at MetroHealth, said if people are outdoors and maintaining six feet of separation, wearing a mask is not necessary. However, she does recommend carrying one with you in case you need it- perhaps in a paper bag or envelope.

Sign requesting face coverings along the Lakefront Trail
Signs from the Chicago Department of Public Health line the recently reopened Lakefront Trail, encouraging trail users to wear face coverings. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

If you’re only going for a quick walk outside, do you need to wash the mask after the walk?

The CDC recommends washing your mask after each use, either with hot water and detergent in a washing machine or by soaking it in a bleach solution if washing by hand. The agency recommends drying it in a hot dryer or air drying in the sun if possible.

Infectious disease expert Dr. Mia Taormina of DuPage Medical Group agrees that you should wash a mask “after 8 hours of continuous or intermittent use.” But if you are “taking it on and off and intermittently using it for shorter periods of time, once weekly is reasonable,” she said. To reduce wear and tear she also recommends keeping a few masks in rotation for each person in the household.

“My recommendation is to have a handful of masks, three to five that [you] cycle through and then you’ll be able to have several masks over time last a while,” she said.

You should also make sure to properly remove and store your mask. Only touch the straps when removing your mask from your face and be sure to wash your hands after putting your mask on or taking it off.

Curious City team tips: To avoid wearing out the elastic ear bands on your masks, place them in a mesh lingerie bag when you put them in the washing machine or dryer.

Federal health officials warn against sharing masks with others. To help avoid accidental sharing, try buying different designs and designating at least one mask hook for each household member.

Household masks hanging on wall
Reporter Monica Eng has designated hanging spaces for her household masks to prevent any cross-contamination. Monica Eng / WBEZ

I just ordered face shields for my employees. Are they effective without masks?

“I think you would want to combine your face shield with a mask,” said Dr. Natasha Chida, assistant director of the infectious disease fellowship program at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Airborne particles could “get around your face shield that you [or others] could inhale, so definitely you still need to wear a mask” she said.

And the CDC “does not recommend the use of face shields for normal everyday activities or as a substitute for cloth face coverings.”

The CDC also says “if face shields are used without a mask, they should wrap around the sides of the wearer’s face and extend to below the chin. Disposable face shields should only be worn for a single use. Reusable face shields should be cleaned and disinfected after each use.”

And if the face shield becomes cracked or damaged, you should stop using it.

At my office, we’ve been told we can remove masks when sitting at our desks. Is this still the recommendation given recent concerns over possible airborne transmission of the virus?

The CDC asks employers to encourage employees to wear face coverings at work and Dr. Natasha Chida agrees, even when people are alone at their desks, as others could walk by.

“If you’re in a closed space and you’re around other people and if you’re not keeping a good distance (six feet or more), you should be wearing a mask,” Chida said.

Why aren’t masks considered biohazards? Why aren’t there special bins to dispose of them?

Face masks used in a residential setting are not considered biohazards, according to Mary Allen of the Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County. Instead, she said they are comparable to used tissues and Band-Aids.

“It’s like blowing your nose on a tissue. That’s not biohazard. That’s just potential germs. And on our masks it’s just potential germs.”

But one study found that the novel coronavirus can survive on some surfaces for as long as 72 hours. So used masks do pose a risk of infection and should be disposed of properly.

Disposable mask discarded on the ground
Mary Allen of the Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County said that masks should be disposed of in tied up plastic trash bags and kept out of recycling bins. Mackenzie Crosson / WBEZ

Allen said that means securing them in a tied plastic trash bag and depositing the bag in a dumpster. Disposable masks are not recyclable, so they should only be placed in these sealed trash bags. Do this and your garbage man will thank you!

As for why there aren’t public bins specifically designated for medical waste? Allen said it comes down to two things: cost and management.

“Any program that touches a special waste material costs money… and also just the exposure of having a dropbox like that that is not manned is dangerous.”

Ultimately, she thinks everyone should be prepared to shoulder some individual responsibility.

“When I’m out walking sometimes I see gloves on the ground. I see masks on the ground. People leave their hand wipes in carts when they’re shopping,” she says. “Take responsibility for what you’re generating and make sure it gets in the right place.”

How well does my cloth mask protect me?

At the beginning of the month, NPR reported that “a two-layer tight-weave cotton mask alone can filter out about 35% of small particles.” And adding a filter made out of two layers of electrostatically charged polypropylene fabric (available at your local department store) can increase that by as much as another 35%.

A recent study from Northeastern University reported that the vast majority of cloth face masks are less than 60% effective at filtering viral particles when compared with a facial respirator like the N95. However, the same study found that adding a nylon stocking overlayer improved the effectiveness of these masks to the point where they provided “similar or better” results to an N95.

Regardless, Johns Hopkins infectious disease specialist Dr. Natasha Chida said the best mask is the one that people will wear - and it should always be paired with proper social distancing.

“I’m glad that we’re having a lot of conversations around masks, but I don’t want us to forget that social distancing is equally if not more important,” said Chida. “Wearing a mask does not mean that you can hang out with your buddy and drink coffee right next to each other. You still need to be six feet apart.”

Special thanks to Roseanne Segovia, Christine Baker and Rachel Reynolds for this week’s questions.

Isabel Carter is an intern for WBEZ. You can follow them @Isabel___Carter. Monica Eng is a reporter for WBEZ. You can follow her @MonicaEng.