If someone told you a year ago that you’d soon wear a face mask every time you went out in public, you probably would have scoffed — but here we are.
In the U.S. (and many places across the globe) face masks make up a part of our daily uniform, and for good reason: They help defend against disease transmission by protecting you from people’s germs and protecting others from any germs you may be carrying.
To maximize the efficacy of face masks, it’s critical to care for them properly. Here’s a detailed look at how to disinfect, clean, and dry a reusable cloth face mask so you (and others) can go about your days as safely as possible.
How to disinfect, clean, and dry reusable cloth face masks
If you opted for reusable face masks as your preferred form of personal protective equipment, then you have two main options when it comes to cleaning them: the washing machine, or the sink and a little elbow grease. (You can also sanitize your masks using a pressure cooker, but we won’t detail that strategy here.) No matter which option you choose, here’s how to clean a reusable face mask.
How to clean face masks in the washing machine
If you can safely access a washing machine, then you’re in luck: Washing your face mask will be easy-peasy. But first, check the tag and/or care instructions for your mask and make sure it’s suitable for the washing machine. Some masks stipulate instruct hand-washing only, in which case you should skip down to the next section. Otherwise, here are some tips for washing a cloth face mask in the washing machine.
- It’s fine to toss your face mask into the washing machine with other laundry.
- Go ahead and use your regular laundry detergent. (Consider using an unscented detergent if you’re sensitive to fragrance.)
- Follow the care instructions on the mask’s label to determine the appropriate heat and setting.
- It’s helpful to place your mask(s) in a garment bag so the ear loops don’t twist around other items.
Once your face mask has gone through the wash cycle, you have a few options for drying it.
- Dry it thoroughly in a warm or hot dryer.
- Hang the mask in direct sunlight and allow it to dry completely before reuse.
- If direct sunlight isn’t available, hang the mask or lay it flat to dry on a clean, nonporous surface in your home.
How to clean cloth face masks by hand
If you don’t have access to a washing machine or if your face mask stipulates that it’s hand-wash only, don’t fret. This is a pretty straightforward process. Per the CDC, here are some tips for how to hand wash a face mask.
- Wash the face mask with warm tap water and your regular laundry detergent or soap.
- Scrub the mask for at least 20 seconds, making sure to scrub the full surface area of the mask.
- Rinse the mask thoroughly with clean water until you remove all the detergent or soap.
Once you hand wash your mask, choose from the same drying methods listed above.
- If you have access to a dryer, dry your mask thoroughly in a warm or hot dryer.
- Hang the mask in direct sunlight and allow it to dry completely.
- If you don’t have access to direct sunlight, hang the mask or lay it flat to dry on a clean, nonporous surface in your home until it’s fully dry.
How to properly store face masks
According to the CDC, the best way to store your cloth face mask depends on whether it’s dry or wet and/or dirty. Here’s a quick look at how to store your face mask in either situation.
How to store wet/dirty face masks
If sweat, spit, makeup, or anything else made your cloth face mask dirty or wet, then it’s a good idea to store it in a sealed plastic bag until you’re able to wash it. Wash a wet or dirty mask as soon as possible to minimize the chances of mold growth.
How to store dry masks
If you want to reuse a dry mask later during an outing, store it in a paper bag until you’re ready to re-wear it. (It’s helpful to keep a stash of paper bags in your car, purse, or briefcase.) A note of caution: Make sure you remove the mask properly by holding only the ear loops or ties and carefully folding the outer edges toward each other. Avoid touching any other part of the mask. Slide the mask into a paper bag using the ear loops or ties, and then wash your hands or use hand sanitizer immediately. When you’re ready to reuse the mask, pull it from the bag using the ear loops or ties, and make sure the same side faces out as did earlier. Wash your hands again after putting on the mask.
Per the CDC, you can store a clean, dry mask in a clean paper bag or mesh fabric bag until it’s ready for use. Mesh fabric bags also work well for this purpose.
Additional storage tips for clean masks
In addition to storing your clean mask in a paper bag or mesh garment bag, here are a few tips to keep in mind for safe mask storage.
Store the bag(s) with the mask in it in somewhere it won’t be handled until you’re ready to use the mask inside.
The storage environment should be clean and dry and shouldn’t be near frequently handled items. Good options include a clothing drawer that doesn’t get much use or a dedicated hook near the door of your home.
Label bags if necessary.
If you regularly find yourself with a rotation of dirty and clean masks in paper bags, then it’s a good idea to label the bags so you don’t accidentally mix them up. If you live with other people, it’s also smart to label the bags with the name of the person each mask belongs to.
Don’t share masks between people.
If at all possible, avoid sharing masks with anyone else, and ask each member of the household to be responsible for cleaning and storing their own masks (except small children, of course!). This helps minimize germ transfer and increases the likelihood that each person has a mask with a snug fit. (Otherwise, a larger-headed person may stretch out a smaller-headed person’s masks.)
Important guidelines for mask washing
Here are some additional guidelines and facts you should be aware of when it comes to handling and washing your face masks.
Know your materials.
You can select from tons of face mask options, and it’s important to choose wisely. Per the CDC, your cloth face mask should fit snugly around your nose and chin; feature breathable, tightly woven fabric (such as cotton); and consist of at least two or three layers. By following these guidelines, you’ll find an effective and washable mask. If you’re not a healthcare worker, you do not need to use surgical masks and respirators meant for a healthcare setting.
Keep in mind that disposable face masks cannot be washed or cleaned.
Most disposable masks should be tossed as soon as they are visibly soiled or damaged. Some manufacturers stipulate that users should discard disposable face masks after a single use.
Make a habit of washing or sanitizing your hands before and after removing your mask.
This helps minimize any risk of transferring germs from the mask to your mouth or eyes. Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or use a hand sanitizer that’s made with a minimum of 60 percent alcohol.
Wash cloth face masks after every use.
Of course, it’s okay to take your face mask off and then put it back on during the same excursion. (Just make sure to remove your face mask properly and store it in a paper bag, as detailed above.) But once your outing ends, it’s time to wash your mask. For this reason, it’s a good idea to own at least two face masks so you can use one while the other’s in the wash.
If you use an interior filter, remove it from the mask before washing.
The filters that sit in between the layers of a cloth mask are generally not designed to withstand water or high heat. Make sure to remove these filters prior to washing by machine or hand.
Use your washing machine’s sanitizer cycle.
If your washing machine has a sanitizer cycle, then it’s helpful to use it for your mask. (Just consider whether or not you want your other laundry to be part of this cycle.) If you don’t have a sanitizer cycle, then use your washing machine’s hottest setting.
Consider a diluted bleach solution as another disinfecting option.
If you’re concerned about the efficacy of washing a mask by hand, consider using a diluted bleach solution. To do that, mix in 4 teaspoons of household bleach per quart of room-temperature water. Soak the face mask in this solution for five minutes, then rinse thoroughly with cool or room temperature water.
One note of caution: Make sure the bleach you use is intended for disinfection, since not all bleach products are made for that purpose. And never mix bleach with ammonia or another cleaner, as this can create a dangerous reaction.
Face masks will remain part of our daily lives for the foreseeable future, so it’s important to know how to care for them. By properly washing, drying, and storing your face masks, you’ll reduce the risk of disease transmission and sustain the life of your cloth masks while minimizing waste.