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Keep it clean folks. If something is going to touch your face, whether its a face mask to prevent Covid-19 coronavirus transmission, a Lone Ranger mask, or that inflatable doll that you keep under your bed, you are going to want to keep it clean. After all, your face is not a roll of toilet paper. It can be the window not only to your soul but also for a bunch a microbes to infect your soul if you are not careful. So here are some suggestions first on how to wash your reusable face covering and then on how to handle medical masks like N95 masks. After all, the two are quite different. 

How to Clean Re-Usable Face Coverings

If you are using a reusable face covering, you really should be cleaning it each and every time that you wear it. A good rule to follow is that your face is as important if not more important than your genitals. Does the thought of wearing the same pair of underwear for more than a day gross you out? Then why would wearing a face covering for more than one outing seem OK? Each time you put on a face covering, it touches your mouth and nose, both of which are full of microbes. You may cough, sneeze, pant, spit, burp, sweat, run your nose, and release boogers while wearing the mask. At the same time, things in the air, including potentially viruses and a range of allergens, are being sucked into your face covering. Your face covering is in many ways like underwear for your face.

In order to wash your mask or other face covering, you are going to have to take it off. Standing in the shower with your face covering on is not the way to clean the covering. Before you remove your mask, wash your hands thoroughly and for at least 20 seconds. That means singing at least through the first chorus of the song “I Touch Myself.” This is just past the part that goes, “oh no, oh no, oh no.” If you don’t have access to soap and water to wash your hands, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that has at least 60% alcohol.

 Once your hands are clean, remove the mask by touching the parts that rest on the back or side of your head like the ear loops or the ties and not the part that sits on your face. Remember, you are supposed to be protecting your face in general during this pandemic. Touching your face could introduce microbes to your mouth, nose, and eyes, three sliding doors leading to your respiratory system.

Once you remove the face covering, put it in a safe place in preparation for cleaning. This may be the laundry basket or a disposable bag. Do not put the face covering anywhere that may contaminate other things, like on the kitchen counter, on top of your salad, or on your significant other’s face. Your significant other will be very upset if you treat his or her face like a laundry basket. Dispose of any disposable filters that the face covering may have. These shouldn’t go through laundry. Otherwise, you may have filter fragments all over the rest of your garments. When your face covering is safely stored or in the laundry, wash your hands thoroughly again.

Most fabric masks can go into the laundry with other clothes. If your mask is made out of silk chiffon, delicate lace, or cement, reconsider your choice of face covering. Avoid any fabric that has to be dry-cleaned. In fact, try to use fabric that can be washed in detergent and hot water. Don’t bedazzle your face covering or put anything else on it that can’t make it through the laundry like a feather boa or that lock of Justin Bieber’s hair that you somehow managed to get.

After the face covering has been through the washing machine using the longest and highest heat cycle available, it’s a good idea to put it through the dryer, again with the highest heat available. This may kill any nasty microbes that managed to survive the washing machine.

Hand-washing the face covering is a possibility too. However, be careful. Don’t touch your face while washing the face covering. Touching your face can be like humming the song “Call Me Maybe.” You may do it unconsciously, and it can be bad for you. Again, treat the face covering like a biohazard until it’s been thoroughly cleaned. That means washing your hands thoroughly after handling the face covering in any way.

Hand-washing the face covering means scrubbing it thoroughly with hot soapy water for at least 20 seconds. Try to use a detergent or bleach solution known to kill microbes. Follow instructions carefully when preparing and using such solutions. Don’t mix things that shouldn’t be mixed. Don’t drink or inject the bleach. Make sure that you carefully wash every part of the covering.

If don’t have drying machine, air drying may work as long as you place the face covering in direct sunlight. Such ultraviolet light may help kill microbes. Make sure that the face covering is completely dry before taking it down. Moist is not a good word to say and is not a good thing for your face covering to be.

Once the face covering is dry, store it in a safe, clean place. The toilet bowl or the insides your pants do not qualify as a safe clean place.

How to Clean N95 Masks 

The above only applies to face coverings that can be laundered or cleaned. This does not apply to disposable face masks like those blue surgical ones or N95 masks. Putting such masks through conventional cleaning procedures can compromise their structure integrity or shred them to pieces, which is really compromising their structural integrity. Spraying them with a cleaning solution like alcohol will not be enough to clean them and may also damage the material.

Ideally, you should throw away surgical or N95 masks after a single use. But this is not an ideal situation. On a scale of one to 10 for pandemic preparedness, our society has scored a D minus. That “D” as in “doh,” how can health care workers have no more new N95 masks during the very first month of the pandemic?

This unfortunate short fall led many to explore ways to disinfect and re-use N95 masks and filters. Remember N95 masks and filters are the only types of face masks that will really protect you, the mask wearer, from the virus. All other face coverings are more to protect other people from you, in case you are infected.

The key is finding a disinfection procedure that can get rid of bad microbes like the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV2) and maintain the structure integrity of the filter. For example, setting the mask on fire might adequately disinfect the N95 mask, but you’d then have no mask left to wear.

 As a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) web site shows, the three most promising N95 mask disinfection methods are:

  • Vaporous hydrogen peroxide (VHP): This is exactly what it sound like, having a gaseous form of hydrogen peroxide run through the masks. A vapor could be more penetrating and less damaging than the liquid form. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave a contract to the Battelle Memorial Institute to test this method, which yielded positive results.
  • Ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI): This is applying ultraviolet (UV) light to the mask. However, it’s effectiveness depends heavily on the dose of the UV light and how much of the mask is actually reached. Plus, UV light can be be quite harmful, just in case someone suggests putting it on or in the body. To use UV light, you have to protect your eyes and skin.
  • Moist heat incubation: This is exposing the masks to hot air (e.g., 60 to 70°C) that also has a high relative humidity (e.g., 70 to 80% ) for an extended period of time (e.g., 60 minutes). As the CDC site indicated, studies have shown that it can be effective in killing the H1N1 flu virus, but there is “uncertainty of the disinfection efficacy for various pathogens.” A study just published in the CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal) did show that a “single heat treatment rendered SARS-CoV-2 undetectable in all mask samples.”

N95 mask disinfection isn’t something you should try to do by yourself. You need the proper equipment and facilities. This University of Michigan Engineering video gives you a sense of the equipment involved with these techniques: 

The CDC website also mentions steam treatment and liquid hydrogen peroxide as “promising methods with some limitations.” More studies are needed to confirm the effectiveness of both these methods. Moreover, some complications may occur. For example, a N95 mask is not a Hot Pocket. You can’t just throw it into a bag with some water and then place this in a microwave. If the mask has some metal parts, expect some sparks to fly and not in a good way. Again, blowing up the mask and the microwave oven with it could disinfect the mask but brings other problems.

Then there are the methods that may get rid of or inactivate the virus but can damage the mask. These include putting the mask in an autoclave or microwave oven, applying dry heat, washing the mask with soap, or wiping it with isopropyl alcohol, bleach, or disinfectant wipes.

Ethylene oxide (EtO) may be able to effectively disinfect a mask but has one small problem. It can be harmful to the wearer of the mask. It can cause cancer, birth defects, and neurological problems, even in low doses. A dangerous mask kind of defeats the purpose of wearing a mask.

Keep in mind that all of these methods may be “operator dependent,” which means that their effectiveness can depend on how well they are done. For example, if someone said that they provided moist heat to your mask, ask for details. What was the relative humidity? What was the temperature? How long was the exposure? Was any testing of the procedure done? Actually, in general, whenever someone uses the words “moist heat,” always inquire further and get more details and the context. “I used ‘moist heat’ to clean all of your personal belongings,” may not necessarily be a good thing.

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