Cleaning masks 🎭

PHOTOGRAPH BY BOBBY DOHERTY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

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If you do venture out wearing masks and gloves, here’s how to clean them, when to dispose of them…

PHOTOGRAPH BY BOBBY DOHERTY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

SCIENCECORONAVIRUS COVERAGE

Here’s the best way to clean your face mask

Whether you’re wearing a disposable surgical mask or a cloth bandana, here’s how to make sure your protective gear stays sanitary.

6 MINUTE READ

BY SARAH GIBBENS

PUBLISHED MAY 28, 2020

WEARING A MASK in public once meant you were dressed for Halloween or to rob a bank. Yet in a few short months, because of COVID-19, this clothing item has evolved into everyday wear.

The World Health Organization recommends wearing a surgical mask—the type found in hospitals—if you feel ill or are caring for a sick person. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention go further and advise a cloth covering for anyone venturing into a crowded public place. Some people are exceeding those official guidelines and also wearing reusable or disposable gloves in public.

Experts warn, however, that misusing any of this protective gear could potentially expose you to just as many germs as you would contact without it—because the masks and gloves themselves collect viruses if they’re not cleaned or changed frequently, and because they may then contaminate your hands or things that you later touch without protection.

“When I see someone [wearing gloves] touching countertops and then digging in their purse, I think, Now they’ve created cross contamination and voided whatever protection they’re wearing,” says Jade Flinn, a nurse educator in the biocontainment unit at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

Social distancing and frequent handwashing remain the most valuable ways, experts say, to keep from spreading or being infected by SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind the global pandemic.

The CDC provides step-by-step instructions for removing gloves and advises you to wash your hands after doing so.

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY BOBBY DOHERTY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

But if you do venture out wearing masks and gloves, here’s how to clean them, when to dispose of them, and why you ultimately shouldn’t fear harboring the virus on the rest of your clothes.

How to clean a cloth mask

A standard laundry cycle is enough to wash the coronavirus off cloth, according to the WHO and CDC.

“Because it’s an enveloped virus, it’s really susceptible to detergents,” says Rachel Graham, a virologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The envelope that encapsulates viruses like influenza and SARS-CoV-2 is a delicate layer of oily lipids and proteins, held together by surface tension.

Laundry detergents and soaps contain surfactants, chemicals that easily break that envelope apart by reducing surface tension, explains Joshua Santarpia, a pathologist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. A surfactant molecule has one end that’s attracted to oil and grease, while the other is attracted to water. The oil-loving end wedges into the coronavirus’s envelope, busting it apart. The remnants get trapped in circular pods of surfactant called micelles and are washed away in water.

“The interaction of that surfactant with the viral envelope pretty quickly destroys the ability of that virus to be infective,” Santarpia says. Potent surfactants are found in most home and commercial cleaning products.

The water temperature in the washing machine doesn’t matter as long as you use detergent. “The masks made of cotton withstand higher temperatures, so if it makes you feel better to wash it at a higher temp, go ahead and do that,” Graham says. The high, concentrated heat from a dryer offers added protection: it’s enough to kill most microorganisms.

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