Should We Treat Our Masks Like Underwear? Or More Like Bras?

Sam Reed
·6 mins read

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In early April, I decamped from my Brooklyn apartment to the sprawling countryside of central New Jersey, where my boyfriend’s parents lived. Like almost everyone in the beginning of the lockdown, we spent most of our time at home, barely going out, save for a trip to pick up takeout or the occasional grocery store run. For these occasions, we picked up one of the 10 or so disposable surgical masks we had laying around the house, in the car, or stuffed in jacket pockets.

When we felt we had finally gotten our use out of the masks (which was, admittedly, too little too late), I bought a three-pack of double layer cloth masks. We kept these in rotation between the two of us, washing every second, third, or … sometimes, 15th wear. We thought, ignorantly, that a trip around the block to walk the dog did not warrant a wash — really, what’s the harm if you rewear a mask that had previously been worn for a mere 20 minutes?

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Of course, I’ve seen the videos and read the CDC guides. It’s safe to say that I chose not to think too much about my mask hygiene because I knew the answer would lead to an inconvenience.

In September, I visited a close friend who lives in Manhattan — it was the first time we had seen each other in seven months. She described the need to wear a mask pretty much any time she opened the door to her apartment, whether picking up the mail from the lobby, or stepping outside for a bit of sunshine. Between herself and her boyfriend, my friend had 18 masks.

This number seemed astronomical to me and my measly team of three shared masks. But 18 was too many, right? Who has the time for all that laundry? (Not to mention, the in-unit laundry to support it.) Or the money for all those masks? How do you keep track of this one and that one, and which is fresh and which has been sweated through?

I asked Twitter, and then, thinking better of it, I asked Neha Pathak, M.D., Medical Editor, WebMD. Here’s what she had to say.

InStyle: How should we handle our masks? The CDC recommends that you don’t touch your mask when it’s on — but I see plenty of people that pull their masks up and down 10-20 times while outside. Is this bad?

Dr. Pathak: You want to try to avoid touching your mask, but we all know that this is not always possible, especially for young children. Ideally, you should wash your hands before putting on the mask, and use hand sanitizer before you touch your mask to adjust it while you are wearing it. When adjusting your mask or taking it off and on, try only to handle the attached strings or elastic bands. And always remember to wash your hands AFTER taking off as well, and avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth until you have washed them.

Where is the best place to store your mask between uses if you aren’t going to wash it right away? (IE. for people doing outdoor dining.)

You want to avoid stuffing a used mask into your pocket or purse because that can contaminate the surface that will then touch your face again. If you need to store it in between uses, fold it so that the contaminated side is folded inward (against itself) and put it in on a sanitized surface or in a clean (paper — not plastic) bag. If it's soiled or wet you should reach for a new mask.

I’ve heard a lot of people talk about washing their masks in the shower, presumably with body wash. Is this as effective as laundry detergent?

The best thing to do is wash your face mask after every use. You can hand wash or use a washer, using hot soapy water and then drying on a high setting. Detergent, dish soap, hand soap — doesn't really matter. Some experts recommend using a bleach solution to hand wash (5 tablespoons bleach per gallon of water and rinse thoroughly). Drying on the highest possible setting or letting it air dry in the sunlight (ideally midday sun for about an hour.)

Many people have said that they only wash their masks after use if they spent a prolonged amount of time outside, but that for small trips (running to grab the mail if they live in an apartment complex; running to the grocery store for 1-2 things), then they won’t. Is this thinking correct?

You want to wash after each use — having multiple masks on hand so you can switch them out in between washes is a good idea. If you are wearing a mask, you are presumably in an area where you are at potential risk for infection, so you should think of your mask as contaminated after being exposed in any of these situations.

Some people have compared wearing masks to wearing underwear, or bras … Is this an apt comparison to make?

The most important thing to remember is to wash after each use. You can think of it like bras or underwear in terms of throwing your face masks into a mesh bag before putting it into your washing machine.

How strictly should we adhere to the mask guidelines? Are they just that — guides — or should we be following them exactly?

We should be serious about masking in places where we can't avoid close contacts, crowded places, and confined spaces with poor ventilation ... masks, physical distancing, and hand hygiene should all be followed strictly outside of your usual household contacts.

Trump made fun of Biden for wearing a “big” mask. Does size matter?

In this situation, size does matter — too big or too small can make your mask less effective. The key is that the mask fits over your nose and mouth snugly without gaps and that you can breath easily. For the record, Biden's masks seem to fit very well from what I've seen.

How many masks do you, personally, own?

I have 5 reusable masks for everyone in my family (we have 3 kids — the baby, obviously, doesn't have any).