Since the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic—even back in January and February before things really started to get bad in the U.S.—there has been some mixed messaging when it comes to wearing masks. At Lifehacker, we’ve been fortunate that our senior health editor, Beth Skwarecki, has been on the case this whole time, providing us with updates to all the changes in mask-wearing guidelines.
But one question that keeps coming up is on how frequently we should be washing our cloth face masks. According to new information recently released by the World Health Organization (WHO), we should be washing our masks at least once a day. Here’s what to know.
How often to wash a cloth mask
Last week, the WHO issued new guidelines on mask wearing, based on newly available scientific evidence. (You can read the whole thing here.)
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Though most of what’s included in the update is common sense—like advising that people aged 60 and over and those with compromised immune systems wear masks in situations where social distancing isn’t possible—it also contains a few helpful infographics on mask-wearing. And hidden in one of these is their new recommendation that masks should be washed at least once a day.
Per these updated guidelines, here’s what you should do whenever you take off a cloth mask:
- Clean your hands before removing your mask.
- Remove the mask by the straps behind your ears or head.
- Pull the mask away from your face.
- Store the mask in a clean plastic, resealable bag if it is not dirty or wet and you plan to reuse it.
- Remove the mask by the straps when taking it out of the bag.
- Wash the mask in soap or detergent, preferably in hot water, at least once a day.
- Clean your hands after removing the mask.
And if you’re a city-dweller without your own washing machine, the Mayo Clinic says that it’s also OK to hand-wash your cloth masks. Either way, like the WHO, they recommend using hot water and detergent.
Viruses aside, now that it’s summer and has quickly gotten hot, humid and gross in many parts of the country, you’ll probably want to wash that wet and sweaty mask anyway. And no, as Beth Skwarecki pointed out before, dousing your cloth masks with essential oils is not the equivalent of washing them:
One thing: don’t expect essential oils to protect you if you’re using a mask. There’s a news anchor out there doing a perfectly fine bandana mask tutorial while telling people that lavender and peppermint oils are “antibacterial” and “help fight germs.” COVID-19 is caused by a virus, not bacteria, and there’s no reason to believe that dotting essential oils on a bandana will do anything to the virus. (Pleasant smells in your mask blocking out disease? That’s some 17th-century plague doctor shit.)
So if you’re someone who leaves your home relatively regularly, you’ll probably want to invest in multiple cloth masks so you can rotate while used masks are washed and dried. And unlike a few weeks ago, it’s pretty easy to find cloth masks at affordable prices now, especially on sites like Etsy.
For more on face masks, check out this video: