Why cleaning and re-using hospital masks isn’t really safe


Remember that time you didn’t feel like doing laundry so you kept wearing the same pair of socks? Okay, maybe you do that a lot but this isn’t one of those times. In fact, we are in the grip of unprecedented times of a global pandemic the likes of which no one alive has ever seen. Thousands of deaths from the coronavirus every day in New York City, hundreds of thousands of new cases in Los Angeles, and millions of deaths worldwide. It’s not getting better, and we will likely see a second wave of the virus later this summer and fall.

Experts around the world are scrambling to get a leg up on this scourge. In the meantime, the world’s health care workers are at the head of the fight, facing the very maw of the virus at its deadliest. Wearing face masks is common practice for those in the medical field to protect against airborne bacteria and virus particles, and is now a common sight in public settings as well. That of course has led to a debilitating shortage of masks where they are needed most.

Is it okay to reuse face masks?

Most single use items are designed that way for a reason; to be used one time. The N95 face masks health workers need are designed as single use but given the drastic shortage of the masks, many workers are forced to reuse masks far beyond their ability to protect against disease. The same holds true for the rest of us and we are faced with a serious dilemma.

In fact, long before the coronavirus, a study confirmed that reusing N95 respirator face masks would likely increase the risk of infection. Keep in mind that N95 masks are made with special fibers specifically woven to trap tiny particles. But the fibers don’t last forever and once they degrade, the integrity of the mask goes with it. Reusing a mask is almost like clamping a handful of viruses and other nastiness directly on your face.

What about washing the mask?

We are in desperate times to be sure and while that typically calls for like measures, this pandemic is far from ordinary and many people have resorted to cleaning their masks and then keep right on using them. But does it work? Another expert study revealed decontaminating an N95 “must remove the viral threat, be harmless to the user, and not compromise the integrity of the respirator.” Unfortunately, we don’t currently have a cleaning method meeting all three of those parameters.

Cross-contamination is another potential problem. You can’t just shove a used mask in a backpack or your pocket and expect it to stay clean. Respirator masks in particular should not touch other masks and even putting the mask on requires awareness; if your hands are infected, the germs gladly take advantage of the ride and plant themselves on the mask.

Special decontamination methods are currently in the works that could allow reuse of N95 masks but for now, using a new mask is your best defense.

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