How to properly disinfect your cloth face masks, according to an infectious disease specialist

insider@insider.com (Ashley Laderer)
You can hand wash masks or clean them in the washing machine.
You can hand wash masks or clean them in the washing machine.

ICHAUVEL/Getty Images

  • You can clean fabric face masks by handwashing them in bleach or washing them with hot water in the washing machine.

  • When taking off your mask, be sure to wash your hands, remove your mask by the ear straps, store it in a bag until you can wash it, and then wash your hands again.

  • It's best to have more than one mask so that you can wash each one after every use.

  • This article was medically reviewed by Jason R. McKnight, MD, MS, a family medicine physician and clinical assistant professor at Texas A&M College of Medicine and Graham Snyder, MD, MS, who is the medical director for the Infection Prevention and Hospital Epidemiology branch at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

  • Visit Insider's Health Reference library for more advice.

Along with social distancing, wearing a face mask is one of the best tools we have for fighting COVID-19. Because of the low supply of medical-grade masks, many people have turned to cloth masks that can be purchased or homemade. 

To make sure you're getting the best protection as well as protecting others, you need to make sure your fabric mask is clean. Otherwise, the mask itself can become a contaminated surface that's potentially hazardous to anyone who handles it.

Here's how often you should wash your mask as well as how to do so. 

How often you should clean a cloth face mask

The CDC recommends that you wash your cloth face masks after every use. And if it is visibly soiled with any bodily fluids such as sweat, mucous, or vomit, you should clean it right away, says Jaimie Meyer, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Yale Medicine.

The main way people become infected with COVID-19 is through the person-to-person spread of respiratory droplets, but "if you have been around someone who is infected with COVID-19, virus-laden droplets could land on the outward-facing side of the mask," says Meyer.

A contaminated mask could let the virus fester for days. A 2020 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, can survive on surfaces like plastic, stainless steel, and cardboard, for up to 72 hours. Although no comparable studies have been done studying the virus on fabric yet, Mayer says that  "one might expect that virus could also remain on fabric for just as long." 

How to remove and care for a dirty mask

Meyer says that every time you remove or handle your mask, you should thoroughly wash your hands. Here's how to safely remove your mask:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

  • Remove the mask by the ear straps, without touching the front of the mask. Be sure to avoid touching your face after removing it.

  • Depending on where you are, either put the mask right in the wash, or you can put it in a bag (disposable or reusable) until you can wash it. If you're using a reusable bag, make sure you wash that, too. 

  • Wash your hands again.

How to disinfect a cloth mask

You can hand wash or machine wash your face mask, whichever you prefer. The mask should be washed with fabric detergent and water. 

To be extra safe, wash your mask in water that is heated to at least 140°F, which is the temperature needed to kill viruses. But washing with detergent or bleach is more important than the temperature of the water, Meyer says. 

This is because SARS-CoV-2 is an enveloped virus, meaning it has a viral envelope made up of lipids. Soap breaks apart this envelope and inactivates the virus, so it's no longer a threat. The soap will stick to the virus particles, and when you rinse, the soap and the virus particles stuck to them will be washed away.

How to hand wash a mask

How to machine wash a mask

  • Include mask with your regular laundry.

  • Use the warmest water possible. 

  • Dry on high heat.

To make things easier on yourself, it's best to have more than one mask. Meyer says the number of masks you need really depends on how often you're going to public places. If you leave the house regularly, you should have a few on hand so you're never left in a bind and always have a clean one to wear if others are stuck in the hamper or your washing machine. 

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