Avoid these common issues when washing your face mask to preserve the fabric and keep it germ-free.

By Jessica Bennett
October 22, 2020
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For many, wearing a face mask is now a part of daily life, but keeping it clean is key to its effectiveness. Fortunately, water and a mild detergent are all you need to clean a face mask, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Follow our laundry tips for the best way to sanitize your face mask and prevent damage to the fabric. By avoiding these common laundry mistakes, you can ensure your fabric face mask is as safe and effective as possible.

1. You're using fabric softener or bleach.

Avoid washing your face mask with any laundry products that could irritate your skin or respiratory system, including bleach, ammonia, and fabric softener. "While bleach may be great for sanitizing hard surfaces or cleaning towels and bedding, bleach is not a recommended cleaning agent for face masks, even in a diluted solution," says Diann Peart, founder of green cleaning product company Truce. Because you need to breathe through the mask, sometimes for long periods of time, it's best to avoid washing it with any harsh cleaning agents. Additionally, fabric softeners can leave behind a chemical residue that might be unpleasant to breathe through or impact the mask's effectiveness. Instead, Peart suggests using a gentle detergent in the washing machine or mild dish soap when hand-washing.

2. You're not washing your mask regularly.

A good rule of thumb is to wash your mask after each use, even if your mask includes a filter. In addition to potentially harmful airborne contaminants, moisture from your breath, sweat, oils, and makeup can gather inside the mask and lead to bacteria growth, so plan to launder it after each wear.

3. You're not discarding the filter after each use.

Homemade face mask filters, such as HEPA filters, paper towels, or coffee filters, can add an extra layer of protection to your cloth covering, but they should be discarded and replaced after each use. The filter is intended to capture virus-carrying particles, so reusing it could add to your risk of contamination. These materials also typically shouldn't go through to wash, so be sure to remove the filter before laundering your face mask.

4. You're using cold water.

Because heat can destroy viruses, washing in hot water helps disinfect items more effectively than cold water. For the most effective wash, select the sanitizing cycle on your washing machine, which usually reaches a water temperature of 150-165°F. For comparison, testing from the World Health Organization showed that a temperature of 132.8°F was high enough to kill the coronavirus that causes SARS, a virus similar to COVID-19. If your machine doesn't include a sanitize cycle, choose the warmest water temperature available.

To avoid running a machine load just for a single mask, you can also toss in items such as bath towels, bedsheets, and kitchen towels, as these are typically safe to wash in hot water. If you prefer to hand-wash your mask, fill a sink with warm but not scalding water and scrub the mask for at least 20 seconds (similar to the CDC's hand-washing guidelines).

5. You're letting the mask air dry.

For an even more effective clean, the CDC recommends drying cloth face coverings completely in a hot dryer. To be extra thorough, consider ironing your mask on an appropriate setting for the type of fabric to kill any lingering germs and help the mask retain its shape. After washing and drying, you should store the mask in a clean container or bag before use.

6. You're washing someone else's mask.

To prevent the spread of germs from a mask to another person, the CDC suggests that the mask's wearer should typically be the only one handling it. If that's not possible in your household, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly after handling the laundry. You should also always wash your hands before putting on a face mask and immediately after removing one.

7. You don't have multiple masks.

If you're only putting on a mask for the occasional grocery store run, tossing it into the laundry after you take it off isn't too difficult. But if you're an essential worker who has to wear a mask every day, you might want to consider rotating between a few different masks so you don't have to wash the same one every day. Frequent washing, especially in hot water, can break down fibers more quickly and degrade the fabric. Worn-out fabric will be much less effective in capturing airborne particles, so you should replace the mask if you notice holes in the fabric or areas that have worn thin.

More Face Mask Laundry Tips

Agitation from the wash cycle can also stretch the material or cause snags. Consider placing your mask inside a mesh laundry bag to better protect it during the wash cycle. Additionally, some fabrics might shrink in hot temperatures, affecting the shape and fit of the mask. To avoid shrinkage during washing or drying, look for fabrics labeled as "pre-shrunk" or "pre-washed" when choosing a material for your mask.

Use these laundry tips for the best way to clean your face mask, but remember that a simple face mask covering will not offer full protection from the coronavirus. To help stop the virus's spread, continue to maintain a safe distance from others, avoid touching your face, and diligently wash your hands.

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