Face masks: Can you wash disposable masks or should you always throw them away?

Helen Coffey
·6-min read
Masks are becoming a part of daily life (Getty Images)
Masks are becoming a part of daily life (Getty Images)

From 15 June, it became mandatory to wear a face covering when using public transport in England, before this rule was later extended to shops, supermarkets, cinemas, betting shops, private hire vehicles and taxis.

Now the rule essentially means if you’re in an indoor space with people you’d not normally interact with - outside of your household bubble - you should put one on.

Even in pubs and restaurants customers must wear masks when moving around, such as walking to their table or visiting the toilet, as must staff working in hospitality or retail services.

“Evidence suggests that wearing a face covering does not protect you. However, if you are infected but have not yet developed symptoms, it may provide some protection for others you come into close contact with," says the government advice.

The government has used the term “face covering”, rather than “mask”, because it’s keen to keen to distinguish between the former and “the surgical masks or respirators used by healthcare and other workers as part of personal protective equipment. These should continue to be reserved for those who need them to protect against risks in their workplace.”

The guidelines suggest making your own face coverings at home instead. But what do you need to do to ensure whatever face covering you're using is safe and effective? Here’s everything you need to know.

How do you wear a face covering “correctly”?

The government advice states you should use face coverings “properly”. The key element is to ensure that whatever you’re using is completely covering your nose and mouth while allowing you to breathe comfortably, and to wash your hands before putting it on or taking it off.

Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth at all times, and do not touch the front of the face covering, or the part of the face covering that has been in contact with your mouth and nose. Once removed, make sure you clean any surfaces the face covering has touched.

The guidelines also state that face coverings should not be used by children under the age of two or those who may find it difficult to “manage them correctly”; for example, primary school age children who are unassisted, or those who already have respiratory conditions.

In addiction, advice from the Department of Health and Social Care and the World Health Organisation (WHO) is that you should “change the face covering if it becomes damp or if you’ve touched it”

Karol Sikora, a former chief of the WHO’s cancer programme, said: “Moisture makes masks porous and because of this all types of mask are essentially vulnerable in damp weather."

What do I do with a disposable mask?

A disposable mask is only designed to be used once, not multiple times – don’t be tempted to reuse it. You should use this kind of mask once before throwing it away, and should also dispose of it if it becomes at all damp, according to the WHO.

Before putting one on, wash your hands first and check whether there are any holes or tears in the mask when you remove it from its packaging. Most disposable masks have a top and a bottom – the top is the side that has a stiff, bendable edge, designed to mould around your nose.

There’s also a front and a back to most disposable masks: the coloured side is usually the front and should face away from you. When attaching the mask, either by ties or loops that go around your ears, ensure there is no gap between the mask and your face by pushing the bendable top piece so it’s shaped around your nose.

Try not to touch the mask while wearing it, and if you do, wash your hands or use hand sanitiser afterwards. When removing the mask, try not to touch the front of it – use the ties instead. Throw it in a closed bin and, you guessed it, wash your hands.

What do I do with a reusable mask or face covering?

If you have any kind of reusable mask or face covering, wearing it is only half the battle – you also have to wash it.

Advice differs on how often you should do this. While Gulf News writes, “Your face mask should be washed at least once a day. We cannot stress this enough,” the UK government advice simply states you should wash it “regularly”.

Meanwhile, Kate Grusich, a spokesperson for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), says that the frequency with which you wash a face covering should be dependent on how often you wear it.

“If you’re just taking the occasional trip to the pharmacy and supermarket, a weekly wash should be appropriate, as long as the mask isn’t visibly soiled,“ she told GQ. ”If it is soiled, or if you’ve been around someone with confirmed or suspected Covid-19, the face covering should be washed immediately after use.“

When you’ve removed your face covering, the government advises storing it in a plastic bag until you have an opportunity to wash it, and washing your hands after use. The covering can go in with other laundry, using your normal detergent. But what temperature to wash it at? According to the CDC, you should use “the warmest appropriate water setting and dry items completely”. A hot wash is recommended, so 60 degrees or higher.

What can I use as a face covering?

If you don’t have an actual mask, the government guidelines state that “it can be as simple as a scarf or bandana that ties behind the head”.

However, they have also shared ways on making your own face covering out of a T-shirt or squares of cotton fabric. Others have demonstrated how you can turn a sock into a face mask using just a few simple cuts. See our guide to making your own face mask here.

According to a study by researchers from the University of Chicago and the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, the most effective material for face coverings is a sheet of tightly woven cotton plus two sheets of chiffon, made from polyester and spandex. This combination was found to filter out 80 to 99 per cent of particles, depending on their size.

The team suggested this combination was on a par with N95 masks, used by medical professionals. Tightly woven cotton with natural silk or flannel also worked well.

But if you don’t have access to a variety of materials, plain cotton works well as a face covering material, offering breathability and some filtration.

Read more

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Face masks for kids: Where to buy face coverings for children