By now, you’ve probably found a few face masks you like for situations where you need one. How to wash masks, though, is just as important as wearing one—even this far into the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s worth saying loudly: You shouldn’t wear your favorite mask unless it’s clean.
“We live with bacteria and viruses in the ambient air and environment all the time,” says Rashid Chotani, M.D., a resident epidemiologist with HealthCentral. “So the more you wear a mask that has not been washed, the more potential you have of getting exposed to other bacteria and viruses.” In other words, by wearing a dirty face mask, you may be more likely to bring other, non-COVID germs close to your face. And while you may not get COVID, you can, of course, still end up getting sick this way!
Dr. Chotani says to consider the following example: You wear a face mask all day, take it off and set it down on a table. That mask picks up additional bacteria from whatever surface it was touching. When you put it back over your nose and mouth, you are exposing yourself to those bacteria. And if your mask does happen to contain SARS-CoV-2 particles on the outside, you could also potentially touch those when continuously removing and reapplying the same mask.
Wearing dirty masks is also not doing your skin any favors. A mask that isn’t properly washed can have oil buildup on it. “That’s compounded by the oil that you’re producing underneath every day and that’s going to help to clog your pores,” says Corey Hartman, M.D., founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, Alabama. Wearing a face mask can also lead to skin inflammation and exacerbate existing conditions like rosacea or reddened scaly patches known as seborrheic dermatitis.
And while people may attribute mask acne (aka maskne) to the rise in wearing face coverings, Dr. Hartman says for a lot of people “it’s really the lack of properly cleaning them that is causing the problems and making them persist. I would say that the infrequency of washing or changing your mask is more detrimental than wearing the mask itself.”
Washing your cloth mask is as easy as throwing it into the laundry—you don’t have to worry about putting them in a separate load, or on the delicate cycle, or really any special considerations. Just wash them! “You can put them in with your regular clothes with detergent and wash them like you’re washing any of your clothing,” says Dr. Chotani. Make sure you dry your masks fully before putting them on so that they don’t grow mold.
“A hot dryer will do a great job of killing germs, as will drying the mask in direct sunlight,” says Shira Doron, M.D., an infectious disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center.
A 2020 study by researchers at UNSW Sydney found that the risk of infection with seasonal respiratory viruses was double in hospital health care workers who hand-washed their masks versus those who put them through the washing machine. There were some limitations to the study, like the fact that the health care workers were self-reporting their mask-washing habits. The study authors also note that the data looked specifically at two-layered cloth masks and “cannot be generalized to all cloth masks.” Still, Dr. Doron says putting your mask through the washing machine where it can be cleaned in hot water is ideal. But if you don’t have a washer or dryer at home, it’s okay: Dr. Chotani explains how to hand-wash masks.