Going into a new year, some people resolve to clean our their underwear drawer. If you’re tossing your old socks and undies, it may also be time to swap out your cloth face masks.
“These face masks are the new socks — they are easy to lose and easy to forget,” Jane Smith says about her laundry. Smith is a mother of three, and “Between all the kids, God knows how many face masks are in this house.”
On January 21, 2020, the CDC confirmed the first Covid-19 case in the United States. In the two years that have passed, families have amassed plenty of fabric masks. “I remember back when you couldn’t get your hands on a face mask. One of my coworkers has a sewing machine, and she made some masks for me and the kids. We still have those masks around here, somewhere,” Smith says.
For many people face masks are becoming as essential a part of our wardrobes as underwear or socks. Christopher Sulmonte from John Hopkins told USA Today, “Obviously the single cleaning aspect is important, but the other piece is that if it starts to tatter or there are holes, it might be time to replace it.”
The Dangers of Wearing a Worn-Out Mask
Even if cloth masks are not as effective as surgical masks, many people depend on them during the pandemic. Researchers from Bangladesh tested over 342,000 people to see how effective cloth masks are in comparison to other options. The results of the study indicate that cloth masks are about half as effective as surgical masks when it comes to preventing Covid-19.
When these cloth face masks are old or worn out, they are even less helpful. Well-worn face masks may not prevent you as effectively as a fresh, newer face mask. Over time, your favorite cloth mask may become faded or tattered. “Since the basic principle of masks works by blocking the distance droplets travel, cloth masks will become less effective the more they get washed as they become more threadbare,” Jon Chan, the Lab Manager of Testing at Reviewed, explained in a USA Today article. The fabric may wear thin in some areas, which can make it easier for pathogens to pass through your mask and into your nose and mouth.
MORE FOR YOU
There is no hard-and-fast rule to determine when you should replace your cloth face masks. However, you can use these steps when inspecting your face masks:
- Check to ensure that the elastic bands still fit securely around your ears.
- Make sure that the nose bridge has not poked holes through the fabric of your mask.
- Hold the fabric up to the light to see if there are any spots that appear thinner than others.
- If you purchased face masks for young children, make sure that those masks still fit securely around their face. Dispose of any face masks that your children have outgrown.
- Hold a spray bottle up to the face mask and see if water permeates through the fabric.
If your face masks are no longer in good condition, do not donate them. Cloth masks can protect you only when they are thick enough to protect you from airborne illnesses; threadbare masks are no longer effective.
How to Protect Your Fabric Masks
Companies earned around $19 billion dollars by selling face masks in 2020. Many people prefer to wear cloth masks because they enjoy being able to customize their look with different textures, patterns, logos, and embroidery. If you prefer to wear cloth masks instead of surgical options, you can take steps to protect your masks so they last longer:
- Use a gentle wash cycle
- Hang the masks to dry
- Alternate between a selection of clean masks
- Avoid wearing heavy makeup under your favorite masks since the foundation and lipstick can stain the fabric
- Invest in a plastic face bracket to wear under your mask
- Wear a surgical mask under your cloth mask for extra protection
“I didn’t think about how gross a face mask can get if you’re wearing it, day in and day out,” Smith says. She goes on to explain, “Think of how nasty your kid’s favorite pair of undies can get after two years. There comes a point where those old garments just aren’t sanitary anymore. I wouldn’t let my kids wear stained or old boxer-briefs, so why would I let them wear worn-out face masks?”
As we learn to adapt to life where masks are the new normal, we must also adopt new hygiene routines to make sure our masks are safe and effective. If it’s time to bid adieu to some of your older masks, consider purchasing new masks that have at least three layers.