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How to clean your mask, according to experts

Like many of us living in this pandemic, I consider my cloth mask a staple item, as essential to have on me when I head out the door as my phone, keys, and wallet. Although masks can help protect us and those around us from COVID-19, the contamination that occurs when we wear them out can limit their ability to do so. I try to wash my mask with dish soap and hot water as soon as I get home, but occasionally I forget, and worry about whether my precautions go far enough. How do I clean my mask so that it actually serves its purpose?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing masks in public places to prevent those infected with the novel coronavirus, who may or may not show symptoms, from exhaling their virus-laden droplets onto others. Masks, then, can help slow the transmission of COVID-19. Growing evidence that the virus remains airborne indoors only underscores their importance.

To learn how to best keep my mask clean, I turned to medical experts. In general, they recommend treating your face mask like you would your underwear: If you’re wearing it for full, 8- to 12-hour days, “you want to make sure you have a fresh one every day,” says Jade Flinn, the nurse educator for the Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit. Seriously, think about all the moisture and germs that’ve accumulated on your mask, not only on the outside, but the inside, as well. “I think we forget that we are creating out own schmutz on the inside of the mask" — and that schmutz can create the ideal environment for germs to thrive.

On the other hand, if the only time you masked up on a given day was to drop off mail or run some other quick errand, you probably don’t need to wash it before wearing it again the next day, Flinn says. But “if you’re taking care of somebody who is COVID-positive, and they’re coughing, you should be changing your mask after each encounter,” Suzanne Willard, a clinical professor and associate dean for global health at Rutgers School of Nursing, tells me.

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NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 06: An employee wearing a mask cleans the inside of the restaurant, Blue Stripes Cacao Shop as it prepares to reopen for takeaway and delivery orders after being closed for over a month amid the coronavirus pandemic on May 6, 2020 in New York City. Governor Andrew Cuomo made the announcement that all bars and restaurants must close by on March 16th unless it was takeout or delivery. COVID-19 has spread to most countries around the world, claiming over 263,000 lives with over 3.8 million cases. (Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 06: An employee wearing a mask cleans the inside of the restaurant, Blue Stripes Cacao Shop as it prepares to reopen for takeaway and delivery orders after being closed for over a month amid the coronavirus pandemic on May 6, 2020 in New York City. Governor Andrew Cuomo made the announcement that all bars and restaurants must close by on March 16th unless it was takeout or delivery. COVID-19 has spread to most countries around the world, claiming over 263,000 lives with over 3.8 million cases. (Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

THOUSAND OAKS, CA - MAY 06: A Cadillac Dealership displays a sign stating its reopened during the Coronavirus Pandemic on May 06, 2020 in Thousand Oaks, California. The coronavirus pandemic worldwide has claimed over 263,000 lives and infected over 3.7 million people. (Photo by Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images)

HOUSTON, May 5, 2020 -- Customers shop at a shopping mall in Frisco, on the outskirts of Dallas, Texas, the United States, May 5, 2020. After closed for several weeks due to the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic, the shopping mall reopened with shortened business hours on Tuesday. (Photo by Dan Tian/Xinhua via Getty) (Xinhua/ via Getty Images)

HOUSTON, May 5, 2020 -- Cars are parked in front of a shopping mall in Frisco, on the outskirts of Dallas, Texas, the United States, May 5, 2020. After closed for several weeks due to the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic, the shopping mall reopened with shortened business hours on Tuesday. (Photo by Dan Tian/Xinhua via Getty) (Xinhua/ via Getty Images)

Dawson Padilla (L), owner of a protein shakes store, works behind the bar on May 5, 2020 in Stillwater, Oklahoma. - In the face of intimidation against employees and the threat of an armed attack by local residents wielding their individual liberties, the mayor of Stillwater had to give in: he gave up imposing the wearing of masks on customers in shops. This demand was included in a 21-page document that was supposed to accompany the gradual reopening of restaurants and shops from 1 May, as authorized by the state of Oklahoma. "About three and a half hours after the law came into effect" of the text, "we started receiving calls from stores claiming that employees were being threatened and insulted, and threatened with physical violence," said Norman McNickle, the city's director of services. (Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP) (Photo by JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)

A worker of the Aspen Cafe wears a mask as she makes coffee on May 5, 2020 in Stillwater, Oklahoma. - In the face of intimidation against employees and the threat of an armed attack by local residents wielding their individual liberties, the mayor of Stillwater had to give in: he gave up imposing the wearing of masks on customers in shops. This demand was included in a 21-page document that was supposed to accompany the gradual reopening of restaurants and shops from 1 May, as authorized by the state of Oklahoma. "About three and a half hours after the law came into effect" of the text, "we started receiving calls from stores claiming that employees were being threatened and insulted, and threatened with physical violence," said Norman McNickle, the city's director of services. (Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP) (Photo by JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)

Kelly Lyda, owner of the Aspen Cafe, stands in his Cafe on May 5, 2020 in Stillwater, Oklahoma. - In the face of intimidation against employees and the threat of an armed attack by local residents wielding their individual liberties, the mayor of Stillwater had to give in: he gave up imposing the wearing of masks on customers in shops. This demand was included in a 21-page document that was supposed to accompany the gradual reopening of restaurants and shops from 1 May, as authorized by the state of Oklahoma. "About three and a half hours after the law came into effect" of the text, "we started receiving calls from stores claiming that employees were being threatened and insulted, and threatened with physical violence," said Norman McNickle, the city's director of services. (Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP) (Photo by JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)

Computer specialist Toby Angel drinks his coffee on May 5, 2020 in Stillwater, Oklahoma. - In the face of intimidation against employees and the threat of an armed attack by local residents wielding their individual liberties, the mayor of Stillwater had to give in: he gave up imposing the wearing of masks on customers in shops. This demand was included in a 21-page document that was supposed to accompany the gradual reopening of restaurants and shops from 1 May, as authorized by the state of Oklahoma. "About three and a half hours after the law came into effect" of the text, "we started receiving calls from stores claiming that employees were being threatened and insulted, and threatened with physical violence," said Norman McNickle, the city's director of services. (Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP) (Photo by JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)

WESTPORT, CONNECTICUT - MAY 05: A cafe along a shopping street in the affluent community remains mostly empty of pedestrians and open stores on May 05, 2020 in Westport, Connecticut. A growing number of states have begun reopening parts of the economy amid demonstrations like the one yesterday that targeted the Connecticut state capital and the governor's mansion in Hartford. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

WESTPORT, CONNECTICUT - MAY 05: A cafe along a shopping street in the affluent community remains mostly empty of pedestrians and open stores on May 05, 2020 in Westport, Connecticut. A growing number of states have begun reopening parts of the economy amid demonstrations like the one yesterday that targeted the Connecticut state capital and the governor's mansion in Hartford. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

LAGUNA HILLS, CA - MAY 05: Customers maintain safety protocols at The BarberHood in Laguna Hills, CA, on Tuesday, May 5, 2020. The shop is one of the first to re-open and defy the state"u2019s stay-at-home order during the COVID-19 (coronavirus) lockdown. (Photo by Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

SAN CLEMENTE, CA - MAY 05: Visitors walk on the beach south of the pier in San Clemente, CA on Tuesday, May 5, 2020. The city opened its beaches for daily active use after coordinating with Gov. Gavin Newsom"u2019s office to maintain social distancing during the COVID-19 (coronavirus) lockdown. (Photo by Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

SAN CLEMENTE, CA - MAY 05: Surfers were back on the waves at T Street in San Clemente, CA on Tuesday, May 5, 2020. The city opened its beaches for daily active use after coordinating with Gov. Gavin Newsom"u2019s office to maintain social distancing during the COVID-19 (coronavirus) lockdown. (Photo by Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

KENMORE, WA - MAY 05: Lynette Fisher-Charles and her dog Gracie, a two-year-old springer spaniel, go for a hike in Saint Edward State Park on May 5, 2020 in Kenmore, Washington. The first phase to reopen the state begins today easing some restrictions including opening some parks, that were put in place during Governor Jay Inslees Stay Home, Stay Healthy order last March to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. Kenmore, WA is located northeast of Seattle. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

KENMORE, WA - MAY 05: Daryl Kline, a park ranger at Saint Edward State Park removes a sign saying the park is closed on May 5, 2020 in Kenmore, Washington. The first phase to reopen the state begins today easing some restrictions that were put in place during Governor Jay Inslees Stay Home, Stay Healthy order last March to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. Kenmore, WA is located northeast of Seattle. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

LAGUNA BEACH, CA - MAY 05: Lifeguards keep a lookout at Laguna Beach, CA after officials reopened access to the sand on Tuesday, May 5, 2020. The beach has been closed since March 23, 2020 due to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) outbreak. City parks along the beach are still closed and people cannot sit or linger on the sand. (Photo by Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

NEW YORK, May 4, 2020 -- Photo taken on May 4, 2020 shows Times Square in New York, the United States. Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, New York Governnor Andrew Cuomo on Monday outlined additional guidelines regarding when regions can reopen. According to the Governor's Press Office, the state will monitor four core factors to determine if a region can reopen: number of new infections, health care capacity, diagnostic testing capacity and contact tracing capacity. (Photo by Wang Ying/Xinhua via Getty) (Xinhua/Wang Ying via Getty Images)

NEW YORK, May 4, 2020 -- A worker cleans a cafe's signboard at Times Square in New York, the United States, May 4, 2020. Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, New York Governnor Andrew Cuomo on Monday outlined additional guidelines regarding when regions can reopen. According to the Governor's Press Office, the state will monitor four core factors to determine if a region can reopen: number of new infections, health care capacity, diagnostic testing capacity and contact tracing capacity. (Photo by Wang Ying/Xinhua via Getty) (Xinhua/Wang Ying via Getty Images)

ASBURY PARK, NJ - MAY 4: People walk near the closed boardwalk due to the outbreak of COVID-19 in the state on May 4, 2020 in the Jersey Shore in New Jersey. Some towns at Jersey Shore expect the reopening of beaches soon. (Photo by Eduardo MunozAlvarez/VIEWpress/Corbis via Getty Images)

NORTH ANDOVER, MA - MAY 4: Although all golf courses in Massachusetts are still ordered to stay closed by governor Charlie Baker, workers at the North Andover Country Club in North Andover, MA work on the grass on May 4, 2020, getting the course ready for when they eventually are allowed to re-open. (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 04: Gov. Gavin Newsom announced select retail businesses will be allowed to reopen starting Friday in California during the coronavirus pandemic on Monday, May 4, 2020 in Los Angeles, CA. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

SANFORD, UNITED STATES - MAY 04, 2020: Customers enjoy a meal at Racks Billiards Sports Bar and Grill on the first day that retail stores and restaurants in all Florida counties except Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami Dade were permitted to reopen as COVID-19 restrictions are eased. Under phase one of the plan to reopen the state, stores and restaurants are limited to 25 percent of their indoor capacity.- PHOTOGRAPH BY Paul Hennessy / Echoes Wire/ Barcroft Studios / Future Publishing (Photo credit should read Paul Hennessy / Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

SANFORD, UNITED STATES - MAY 04, 2020: A customer leaves a Books-A-Million store on the first day that retail stores and restaurants in all Florida counties except Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami Dade were permitted to reopen as COVID-19 restrictions are eased. Under phase one of the plan to reopen the state, stores and restaurants are limited to 25 percent of their indoor capacity.- PHOTOGRAPH BY Paul Hennessy / Echoes Wire/ Barcroft Studios / Future Publishing (Photo credit should read Paul Hennessy / Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

BOZEMAN, MT - MAY 04: Sales staff wear masks at the reopened Schnee's Boots, Shoes and Outdoors on Main Street on May 4, 2020 in Bozeman, Montana. Wyoming health officials today reported that the state's confirmed coronavirus cases grew by nine to a total of 444. (Photo by William Campbell/Getty Images)

BOZEMAN, MT - MAY 04: Signs for restaurants and stores announce their reopenings on Main Street on May 4, 2020 in Bozeman, Montana. Wyoming health officials today reported that the state's confirmed coronavirus cases grew by nine to a total of 444. (Photo by William Campbell/Getty Images)

JENSEN BEACH, FLORIDA - MAY 04: Cole Hunter carries Harper Hunter, 1, as Holly Hunter,4, follows along as they arrive at the beach on May 04, 2020 in Jensen Beach, Florida. Restaurants, retailers, as well as beaches and some state parks reopened today with caveats, as the state continues to ease restrictions put in place to contain COVID-19. The counties of Palm Beach, Broward and Miami Dade continue to maintain restrictions. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

JACKSONVILLE BEACH, FLORIDA - MAY 04: People are seen dining outside at Cruisers Grill as the state of Florida enters phase one of the plan to reopen the state on May 04, 2020 in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. Restaurants, retailers, beaches and some state parks reopen today with caveats, as the state continues to ease restrictions put in place to contain the coronavirus (COVID-19). (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

JACKSONVILLE BEACH, FLORIDA - MAY 04: People are seen at a department store as the state of Florida enters phase one of the plan to reopen the state on May 04, 2020 in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. Restaurants, retailers, beaches and some state parks reopen today with caveats, as the state continues to ease restrictions put in place to contain the coronavirus (COVID-19). (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

SAINT AUGUSTINE, FLORIDA - MAY 04: A mask is seen on the statue of Henry M. Flagler as the state of Florida enters phase one of the plan to reopen the state on May 04, 2020 in Saint Augustine, Florida. Restaurants, retailers, beaches and some state parks reopen today with caveats, as the state continues to ease restrictions put in place to contain the coronavirus (COVID-19). (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

A man works on power lines in Los Angeles, California on May 4, 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic. - California governor Gavin Newsom earlier today announced the gradual reopening of the state later this week as dismal US employment figures are expected with the release of figures Friday May 8 for April's US jobs report, as 30 million Americans filed for unemployment in the last six weeks. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP) (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

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All of this comes with the caveat that there isn’t any research data indicating how frequently you need to wash your mask, she adds, but given all the unknowns, you might want to err on the side of caution. The important thing is that you actually wear your mask; cleaning it on the regular shouldn’t be so complicated or stressful that you say "screw it" and neglect to wear it altogether.

However you wash your mask, Flinn suggests using heat — which can break down viral particles — and vigorous washing with detergent, dish soap, or any soap with disinfectant properties — which can degrade the viral particles’ protective outer envelope. So if you handwash your mask, give it a good scrub in soap and hot water (boiling water if you’ve been in contact with someone who’s tested positive for COVID), Willard says. “That’ll loosen up any debris.”

If you launder your mask, she recommends doing so separately from your other dirty clothes to avoid contaminating them. Maybe wash it with your other masks, if you have multiple — after all, “you wouldn’t wash dirty diapers with the rest of your laundry.” Set the drier heat to the highest setting, Flinn says, or hang-dry the mask under direct sunlight, which has been shown to lower viral durability.

Make sure your mask dries completely before you wear it again, since putting a damp cloth on your face will further dampen it when you breathe and talk, breeding more bacteria, Flinn explains. To avoid this, wash your mask as soon as you can to allow it enough time to dry before your next use, or buy multiple masks, so you have at least one clean one to wear while the other is drying.

The hot, humid environment a mask can create, combined with dirt from your mask and skin, can clog your pores and lead to breakouts, a.k.a. “maskne,” according to the experts I spoke to. So, besides aiding in slowing the transmission of COVID-19, proper mask washing — paired with good skincare — can help ward off this annoying problem. Also, try not to touch your face, Flinn notes, which might be harder to do now that a mask is making you more conscious of it. “All of those small movements are ways you can transmit bacteria or debris onto your face.”

In light of my conversations with Flinn and Willard, I’ll probably invest in another mask. I rarely venture out, but an extra mask could come in handy if I fall behind on washing the one I currently own. Just like maintaining my distance from others, I want to learn to accept mask washing as part of the new normal and make it as easy for myself as possible.

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