And how often do you need to wash it, really?

Washing Face Masks
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Ever since the CDC recommended Americans wear a cloth face-covering in public to prevent the spread of coronavirus, fabric face masks quickly became the most popular accessory flooding our Instagram feeds. (Although, we certainly have some mixed feelings about fashion brands turning this moment into an opportunity to cash in.)

With brands selling non-medical fashion masks online and an entire subgroup of crafty people now making DIY fabric face masks, there's one important question: How do you ensure your face mask stays sanitized? Here, two experts weigh in on how to clean your face mask.

VIDEO: Fashion Face Masks Are Happening

How Should I Clean My Fabric Face Mask?

So, you made your own face mask using a pillowcase or cotton t-shirt and wore it to venture to the grocery store... now how do you clean it? Dr. Favini says you should throw your mask in the washing machine with laundry detergent and wash it on the hottest setting before tossing it into the dryer on a high-temperature cycle.

The CDC also offers guidelines for safely laundering items, including:

  • Wear disposable gloves when handling dirty laundry from a person who is sick.
  • Dirty laundry from a person who is sick can be washed with other people’s items.
  • Do not shake dirty laundry.
  • Clean and disinfect your clothing hamper with an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-recommended disinfectant.
  • Remove gloves, and wash hands right away.

How Often Do You Need to Wash Your Face Mask?

Every single time you wear it. “Ideally, every time you put on a face mask it should be clean, since you don’t know what bacteria that mask has come in contact with and you don’t want to give those bacteria a chance to enter your nose or mouth,” says Nate Favini, M.D., the medical lead of Forward, a preventive primary care practice.

Dr. Favini suggests making (or buying) a few cloth masks so that you can easily switch them out and wash them in between uses. (Reminder: Disposable, medical-grade masks should be reserved for healthcare professionals, as a result of a shortage in protective medical equipment.)

Wait, Do I Need to Wear a Mask Every Time I Leave the House?

Per the current CDC recommendations, yes. “Face masks have been shown to be able to contain respiratory secretions and may be able to decrease the risk of transmission of COVID-19 from someone sick to others,” explains Richard Martinello, M.D., a Yale Medicine infectious disease expert.

Even if you don’t have symptoms or haven’t been diagnosed with coronavirus, you should wear a mask when you’re out in public. “This is because asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19 can still shed the disease,” Dr. Favini explains. The same goes even if you’ve already been tested for coronavirus, Dr. Martinello says.

“When someone is tested and they are negative for COVID-19, that result only reflects the individual's condition at the time the specimen was obtained,” he says. “It is possible that they may have become contagious even within hours of testing.”

Before you do step out in a mask, you should make sure you test out the fit of the design, Dr. Martinello says. “When worn, the mask should be a little snug one's face to allow it to effectively contain any respiratory droplets being produced,” he noted.

Moral of the story? Wear a mask every time you are in public, no matter your symptoms (or lack thereof). And remember: a mask isn't a replacement for social distancing, Dr. Favini says. “Social distancing is still the primary method of flattening the curve and preventing the spread of the virus."

The coronavirus pandemic is unfolding in real time, and guidelines change by the minute. We promise to give you the latest information at time of publishing, but please refer to the CDC and WHO for updates.