A Cleaning Expert Explains the Best Way to Clean Cloth Face Masks After You Wear Them

Amanda Garrity
·5 mins read

From Good Housekeeping

To slow the spread of the coronavirus, the CDC recommends wearing a face mask or covering any time you go to grocery stores, pharmacies, or other places where social distancing isn't possible. Since N95 respirators and surgical masks should be reserved for healthcare workers, you can put your DIY skills to the test by creating their own cloth face masks right at home, either by following an easy-to-sew pattern or a quick no-sew tutorial. Or you can simply order ready-made face masks on Etsy and other online retailers.

As a reminder, the CDC urges that select individuals aren't required to wear face coverings, including children under age 2, anyone who has trouble breathing, or is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance. Everyone else should follow the CDC's guidelines and wear a face mask in public. All face coverings — DIY or otherwise — should meet the following requirements, as outlined by the CDC:

  • Fits snugly but comfortably against the side of the face

  • Be secured with ties or ear loops

  • Includes multiple layers of fabric

  • Allows for breathing without restriction

  • Can be laundered and machine dried without damage or change to shape

The Good Housekeeping Institute Textiles Lab suggests that tightly woven, 100% cotton is the best fabric to use, which means you can turn a bandana, or fabric from pillowcases, curtains, or woven shirts into a face mask or covering. Be sure to avoid knit fabrics, like jersey T-shirts, because they create holes when stretched. To make the mask even more protective, use a nonwoven interface, coffee filter, or HVAC filter (as long as they don't contain fiberglass) inside the mask to help block particles.

Making or buying a face mask is just half of it. To ensure that you and your loved ones are staying as safe and healthy as possible, it's also important to clean cloth face masks regularly to limit the spread of germs. There are differing reports on whether or not coronavirus can live on clothes. Harvard Health, in particular, suggests that the disease is more likely to live on hard surfaces (think: countertops and door handles) than soft surfaces like fabric. Regardless, the CDC, along with the Good Housekeeping Institute Cleaning Lab, urges that you give cloth face masks the same level of care as your regular laundry, which means you should wash and dry them often per the CDC's guidelines.

How to Clean Face Masks

The CDC has specific guidelines on how to properly clean most cloth and fabric masks.

If using a washing machine:

  • Include your mask in the regular laundry

  • Use regular laundry detergent and the warmest appropriate water setting for the cloth

  • Lay flat and let dry completely, or dry on the highest heat setting

If washing by hand:

  • Check the mask's label to see if bleach is recommended for disinfection. If bleach is suggested, go for bleach containing 5.25% – 8.25% sodium hypochlorite.

  • Mix a bleach solution with 5 tablespoons (1/3 cup) of 5.25% – 8.25% bleach per gallon of room temperature water or 4 teaspoons of 5.25% – 8.25% bleach per quart of room temperature water

  • Soak the mask in the bleach solution for five minutes

  • Discard the bleach solution down the drain and rinse the mask thoroughly with cold water

  • Lay flat and let dry completely, or dry on the highest heat setting

While there are some other cleaning methods floating around the Internet that suggest sanitizing face masks by sticking them in the microwave, oven, or a pot of boiling water, Carolyn Forte, Director of the Good Housekeeping Institute Cleaning Lab, doesn't recommended them since they are nowhere near as effective as standard washing and drying.

How to Clean Face Mask Filters

Think about it: You wouldn't make coffee with an old coffee filter — the same idea applies for face coverings. Most filters that you would add to homemade face masks are intended for single use, so it's best to replace them after each use.

  • Coffee filters: Disposable paper products are not washable, so replace them after each use.

  • HVAC filters: While they are washable, manufacturers warn that they're intended for single use. If you decide to sew the filters between cotton fabrics, wash in the same way as mentioned above, but keep in mind that the effectiveness will decrease with each wash.

  • Medium weight nonwoven interface: This fabric is typically washable, so follow the method mentioned above.

How Often You Should Clean Face Masks

There aren't any hard and fast rules regarding how often you should wash face masks because it's really depending on the frequency of use, according to the CDC. If you want to be extra cautious or think there may be a possibility that someone is symptomatic, or has sneezed or coughed within close proximity, clean your face mask after each use.

As more information about the coronavirus pandemic develops, some of the information in this story may have changed since it was last updated. For the most up-to-date information on COVID-19, please visit the online resources provided by the CDC, and the World Health Organization. You can work to better protect yourself from COVID-19 by washing your hands, avoiding contact with sick individuals, and sanitizing your home, among other actions.

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