The coronavirus pandemic continues to consume the lives of people all over the world, regardless of location, race, age, or health status. Economies everywhere have ground to a halt and people are only recently seeing glimmers of emerging back into the world. But what will our world look like going forward? As new information unfolds, controversies arise around recommendations, protocols, and the latest social distancing practices. Pertinent, reliable information can change quickly and be very confusing to navigate. Does wearing face masks really prevent the spread of the virus? What kind of mask offers the best protection? How do I care for my mask? Can I clean an N95 mask effectively?
Can N95 masks be cleaned?
With the recent run on critical N95 masks, essentially clearing shelves of them, one controversy concerning the public is whether or not heavy-duty professional N95 masks can be cleaned properly and used continuously. Our health care workers and other critical front-line personnel must have the right equipment for their jobs but have been forced to clean and reuse masks designed only for single use. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have declared that these respirators are not approved for decontamination and re-use. While innovative ways to clean homemade facemasks continue to make headlines, these methods are not intended for professional situations and equipment.
Groups of experts reviewing complex design information about N95 decontamination agree that the general population should not be wearing disposable surgical masks or N95 masks. The risk of cross-contaminating by using a mask that cannot be properly decontaminated is greater than simply using a homemade cloth mask.
While a cloth face covering can be easily and thoroughly cleaned in a household washing machine and hot dryer, an N95 mask requires very complicated industrial methods of disinfection. The disposable properties manufactured in N95 masks are meant to be disposable and as such are extremely difficult to clean to a level suitable for reuse.
What about DIY tips for cleaning N95 masks?
In spite of optimistic, well-meaning cleaning tips flooding the internet, professional methods used to disinfect N95 masks cannot be duplicated at home. For example, a mask can be disinfected with hydrogen peroxide vapor, steaming at more than 250 degrees Fahrenheit, or using an industrial oven; not exactly a convenient or manageable at-home task.
While some reports claim that the coronavirus cannot survive longer than 72 hours on an unfavorable surface, removing a mask from use for at least 72 hours could provide an alternative to cleaning (albeit not preferred or reliable). However, this would require several masks for each person, which is not realistic given the current shortage.
The CDC continues to recommend leaving the N95 respirators for those with the highest risk of contracting the virus or experiencing complications of infection. For the rest of us, cloth face coverings should be our default personal protection equipment. Simple cloth face masks easily disinfected with household laundry equipment and re-used will dramatically reduce asymptomatic spread of the virus and provide adequate protection against inhaling the virus.