The facemask basket sitting by my back door is new. Likely yours is too. It’s one of several things that have appeared in my house since it became the one-stop shop for school, work, entertainment, life, the universe, and everything.
In addition to remembering to grab one on the way out the door, I also need to remember to clean them afterwards. Fortunately, cleaning non-disposable facemasks is fairly simple.
Non-disposable facemasks should be washed after every use, per the Center for Disease Control (CDC). (Disposable facemasks should be discarded after every use. Cut the ear loops before tossing to reduce risk of ensnaring wildlife.)
I know the word “use” is a bit subjective. Some people’s “one use” is 8 hours at work while other’s “one use” is walking in and out of the post office. It’s your call. In general, the more you are around people, the more likely your mask is in need of washing.
Which leads to the next point, how to clean a facemask. One of the few good pieces of news that came out of the early days of this pandemic was that despite the worldwide devastation, this virus was perhaps unexpectedly easy to destroy outside the body.
Regular soap or any detergent readily breaks down the fatty layer surrounding the coronavirus, thereby deactivating it. I like how Pall Thordarson, professor of chemistry at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, explains it. However, breaking down this particular virus’s fatty outer layer (technically it’s called an envelope) is not soap’s only power at play here. The main way soap or detergent cleans is by removing any and all debris from surfaces – be it bacteria, virus, dirt, oils, or chemicals. So, even if soap did not break down the coronavirus, it would still carry it away. But it does both. That is the magic of soap.
All that to say, it was no surprise that the CDC concluded that to wash face masks, all you need is “regular laundry detergent and the warmest appropriate water setting for the cloth used to make the mask.” Both Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soap and Sal Suds Biodegradable Cleaner are great options since they both work well for laundry. They’re all I use anyway. In addition to their cleaning power, they are both clean rinsing, not leaving behind any residues or fragrances that would make the mask difficult or unpleasant to use.
To Handwash or Machine Wash
Both cleaners work for handwashing as well as machine washing. Handwashing extends the lifespan of the mask. Machine washing extends the lifespan of my sanity. You can probably guess my priorities. I end up tossing masks into loads of towels, underwear, and other items I wash on hot.
If your masks contain any hard pieces, such as nose wires or filters, handwashing is best. The agitation of machine washing could dislodge these pieces or cause them to rip the fabrics.
Consider using a zippered mesh or net laundry bag to keep the strings or elastics from tangling around other clothes and keep the masks from getting lost altogether. For a large load in a regular capacity washer, use 2-3 Tbsp. (30-45 mL) of Sal Suds or 1/3-1/2 cup (80-120 mL) of Castile Soap. For HE machines, cut these amounts in half. Use the hottest settings the fabrics tolerate.
Do not use conventional fabric softeners. The fragrance residues they leave behind on fabrics are not good to breathe in general, but on masks through which each and every breath passes, their impact would be intensified and more direct. Instead, if you need fabric softening, or are using the Castile Soap in hard water, use 1 cup (240 mL) of white vinegar in the washer’s rinse cycle. Again, halve the amount in HE machines.
For handwashing, use a ½ capful of Sal Suds or 1 capful of Castile Soap in a gallon of water in the warmest temperature your hands and the fabric will tolerate. Scrub the masks against themselves for 20 seconds. It’s fine to wash multiple masks in a batch but give each mask its due scrubbing time. Let soak for 10 minutes. Scrub again. Rinse thoroughly.
To Air Dry or Machine Dry
As I mentioned, the soap or detergent has already deactivated and removed the virus. The manner of drying does not impact that. However, there are still some pros and cons for each method.
This method is faster and better for people with allergies, as air-dried fabrics may collect pollen, dust, and other allergens. That’s not a great thing for something that is ultimately pressed right up to your airways. If you choose machine drying, the CDC advises, “Use the highest heat setting and leave in the dryer until completely dry.”
However, if your cotton mask has not been pre-shrunk, machine drying will likely shrink it. That may be a good thing, as in the case of my daughter who needed a smaller mask, but if it’s your favorite one and fits just right, choose the air option.
I strongly advise against dryer sheets for the same reason I denounce fabric softeners. They leave residues on the mask, often synthetic fragrances that are harmful to breathe. Use wool dryer balls if needed.
Lay flat to dry, preferably in direct sunlight, until fully dry. Air drying ensures no shrinkage, is gentler on the fabrics, and will ultimately prolong the masks’ lifespans. Masks with hard components should always be air dried.
After each wash, examine the mask to be sure it is still intact. Any holes will reduce its effectiveness.
Here’s one last tip. This won’t clean your mask, but it will freshen it up throughout the day, plus give some pleasant aromatherapy and cover the scent of that tasty garlic-roasted broccoli you ate for lunch. Give the mask one spritz of Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint or Lavender Organic Hand Sanitizer before putting it on. If hand sanitizer is too precious, you can make your own scented spray by following the simple steps below. This is not enough to sanitize, but it does make a refreshing spritz for masks, as well as for body or air.
GIY Mask Refreshing Spritz
- ¼ cup (60 mL) Vodka
- 10-15 drops essential oils such as Lavender, Peppermint or Citrus
Combine in a small spray bottle. Spritz mask once before putting on.
With kids, facemasks have posed a number of unexpected and humorous problems. For example, my teenage boys aren’t identical but look enough alike that you know they’re brothers. Cover their faces, though? You might assume that the taller one is the older one. Which was true last time his school mates saw him. But in the months since, my younger son shot up past his brother, even past his father. With facemasks, people confuse them constantly. So far my boys have been very gracious about it, but I fear they’ll soon take advantage of the mix-ups, and then the mischief will begin!
It looks like masks are going to be with us for a while yet. While there are other mask related difficulties like remembering to remove them before drinking or deciding which look professional enough for work, at least keeping them clean is relatively easy.