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‘Treat your face mask like your underwear.’ How to care for your reusable face covering

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With older children advised to bring a fresh reusable face covering to school each day and the mandatory wearing of face masks in shops, public buildings and on public transport, many people will be rightly concerned about how best to keep these face coverings clean.

How long is it safe to wear the same face covering? How often should they be washed and at what temperature? Can they be safely left on desks, tables or in cars? And, how dangerous is it to touch them when you are removing them from your face?

See below the answers to these simple – yet important – questions as we continue to find the best ways to avoid catching or spreading Covid-19 six months on since this novel coronavirus spread across the world. With thanks to Luke O’Neill, professor of biochemistry in the school of biochemistry and immunology at Trinity College Dublin.

How long is it safe to wear the same face covering?

The short answer is that it’s a good idea to change reusable face coverings each day. However, if you are interacting with sick patients all day long, you will need to change your face covering more often (most healthcare workers will however be wearing disposable face masks).

If you are only using it for popping into the shop for an hour or so, you can use the same face covering again and again for a few days.

Never share face coverings with friends or other family members.

Dispose of a face covering in a closed bin if it no longer covers your nose and mouth, has stretched or damaged ties or tears/holes in the fabric.

How often should reusable face coverings be washed?

Prof O’Neill says that a useful analogy is to wash a reusable face covering as often as you wash your underwear and in the same way.

“Treat it like your underwear, so you can scrub it in warm soapy water in the sink or you can put it in the washing machine [with other clothes] on a 60-degree wash cycle. The key thing is to build up a good lather because the virus hates soap. Steam from a hot iron will also kill the virus, although there hasn’t been any research on this yet,” he says.

Reusable face coverings made from cotton are preferable as they are easier to wash than linen or silk face coverings. Reusable face coverings do not need to be sterilised.

Can reusable face coverings be safely left on desks and tables or in cars?

It’s best practice to keep your reusable face covering in a sealable, clean, waterproof plastic bag when you are not using it. That way, you are avoiding the risk of the virus spreading to another surface if you are infected or if you have inadvertently picked up the virus from someone coughing on your face mask.

The thing we are all aiming to avoid is people touching a surface that the virus is still alive on and then touching their face, thus allowing the virus to enter their bodies through their nose or mouth.

Keeping your face covering in a sealed plastic bag when not in use prevents the virus from spreading to other surfaces.

At home, it’s a good idea to leave all masks together in the same place to be washed rather than leaving them lying around the house.

How dangerous is it to touch them when you are removing them from your face?

It’s best to touch only the handles of your reusable face covering when putting it on and taking it off so as to avoid the risk of picking up the virus from the face covering and then touching your face afterwards.

Two recent studies from reputable journals point to a potential benefit of everyone wearing face masks. These studies suggest that by wearing face masks, very low doses of the virus remain circulating which could potentially give people immunity rather than infect them with the coronavirus.

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