During the coronavirus pandemic, masks have become the key accessory to protect ourselves and others from the spread of the virus. Reusable and washable masks have risen in popularity due to them being a comfier and greener alternative to disposable masks. Whilst these masks have a longer lifespan than disposable masks, we still need to look for signs of wear to avoid putting others and ourselves at risk.
Researchers have suggested that you should treat your face mask like a pair of underwear; having a few is hygienic and means you can switch between when one becomes damaged or needs washing.
“There’s a reason we have multiple pairs of underwear — it’s to maintain good hygiene. The same thinking applies to masks. If you have a couple that’s great. You can have one in the wash and a fresh one available,” Christopher Sulmonte, project administrator for the biocontainment unit at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Whilst there is no exact lifespan for reusable, washable masks it's commonly advised that a fabric face mask can be washed between 20 to 50 times whilst maintaining adequate protection. However, the quality of the mask and the harshness of your washing machine are the main factors in deterioration.
"Since the basic principle of masks works by blocking the distance droplets travel, cloth masks will become less effective the more they get washed as they become more threadbare," said Jon Chan, the Lab Manager of Testing at USA Today's Reviewed.
Things to look out for when your mask comes to the end of its lifespan:
- Loose Fit: If the mask is stretched out and no longer fits snugly to your face.
- Repeated Adjustment: If the mask is missing straps, loose-fitting or otherwise in need of adjustments that require you to repeatedly touch it.
- Rips/Tears/Holes: If the fabric is ripped, even on the sides or a part that isn't directly over the wearer's mouth or nose.
- Stains: If the mask has become damaged and stained this can affect the fibres of the mask.
So, how can you tell if your fabric face mask is at the end of its life? A lot depends on how often you've used it, how much you've washed it, and how often you take it on and off. Sulmonte says there are a few different ways you can check your mask for signs of wear:
- Use the cold weather to test it out; go outside and blow through your mask and see how much air you can see escaping.
- Hold the mask up to a light source (such as a window or bulb). Look through to see if you can find any signs of thinning. If you see any large see-through areas then you know it's time to bin it!
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