How to wash your masks correctly

  • It's not enough to wear masks in public; it's also vital to keep them clean 
  • Masks can harbour pathogens like viruses and bacteria if not kept clean
  • We might not have access to medical-grade sanitation processes at home, but a simple wash with a gentle detergent will do the trick

Since covering our faces in public areas has become mandatory, most of us have gathered quite a collection of face masks.

According to the World Health Organization's updated guidelines on the use of non-medical (fabric) face coverings, we should wash them after every use.

Carriers of bacteria and viruses

According to Ryan Sinclair, associate professor of microbiology at Loma Linda University School of Public Health, research shows that fabric can be carriers of both bacteria such as E.coli and viruses like the norovirus and coronavirus, especially when they are left in a damp state.

Sinclair points out that these pathogens tend to survive on fabric for far longer than we may think – up to 12 hours.

“Because we don’t know what germs we’ve been in contact with or how long the germs have been active on the cloth fibres, it is crucial to regularly wash, sanitise and dry reusable face masks,” he said.

Besides from being exposed to all kinds of nasties that can potentially make you ill, your skin can also be affected by dirty masks. Not only do rubbing and irritation cause us to be more prone to breakouts and skin conditions, but a damp, dirty mask can harbour bacteria that can cause breakouts called folliculitis, which is when bacteria or yeasts infect our hair follicles, leading to painful, inflamed pimples on the skin.

And if you wear makeup, moisturiser or sunscreen, these products can also rub off onto the fabric and encourage bacteria to grow.

But how exactly do we ensure that our masks remain germ-free? Here are some simple guidelines:

1. Wash asap after every use

Whether you have a separate mask for receiving deliveries and one for when you go out, you should wash them after every use. The moist air you exhale dampens the fabric, which creates the perfect breeding ground for bacteria.

As you don’t want to leave your masks to fester in your laundry basket along with your underwear and sweaty workout clothes, you should preferably hand-wash them immediately in hot water and a gentle detergent and hang them out to dry, and if you can’t wash them immediately, place them in a separate laundry container.

2. Check the type of mask before washing in a normal laundry cycle

Any face-covering made of a fabric like cotton can be washed in hot water along with your regular laundry. If your mask has a filter, remove it before washing. Remember that disposable surgical masks cannot be reused and shouldn’t be washed. Discard them after a single use.

3. Dry them with more heat

Tumble dry masks on a high heat setting or hang them out in the sun to dry. The ultraviolet rays from the sun can kill more than 99% of the germs on the surface of the fabric, especially if the masks are hung out in the middle of the day for at least an hour – which will also save electricity.

4. Use an antibacterial detergent if possible

Look out for a detergent containing disinfectants or bleach to ensure that you kill as many germs on the fabric as possible. You can also wash your masks in a light bleach solution when washing them by hand.

5.  Keep their shape

Previous research has shown that cone-shaped masks with multiple layers that fit properly over the nose offer even more protection against droplet flow. Ultimately, it’s important to maintain the shape of the mask, especially after many washes. Place them in a separate mesh wash bags (normally used for bras). This will also help protect the delicate stitching and earloops or straps from damage and prevent them from tangling with other garments.

Inspect your masks after every wash and replace them as soon as they become damaged.

6. Swap fragranced detergent for a gentle, unscented detergent

Heavily fragranced laundry detergent may cause sensitive skin, contact dermatitis or any number of other unpleasant skin conditions. If this is the case, always hand wash your masks separately, using a mild, fragrance-free detergent.

7. Store your masks correctly

Store your masks in a dry, clean cupboard or drawer when you are not using them, preferably away from other items of clothing.

READ | This is what a fabric mask should look like to be more effective

READ | Masks and Covid-19: The latest guideline

READ | Masks and your skin: what you should know

Image credit: Unsplash

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