Care and Feeding of Masks
October 13, 2020 10:09 AM   Subscribe

I am now working from work full time and share an office, so I am wearing a mask the majority of the time. In addition, I no longer have access to unlimited disposable masks, so I am only using cloth. This means I have to clean my masks more frequently, so I am looking for some best practices / "life hacks" you know regarding the care of reusable cloth face masks.

I used to toss them in with my laundry, but I found that the insides would get a bit linty and get a few pieces of pet hair on the inside, which is annoying and itchy, especially when I'm trying not to touch my face. Washing them by themselves seems wasteful - there's so little fabric that I feel that even the "small load" setting will be wasteful. But, maybe not?

I recently waited until all of mine (7-10 or so? so a full week's worth) were dirty, then hand-washed them in a pail and hung to dry. That wasn't awful, but not fun - I hate handwashing. How much are you supposed to scrub them? And how - rubbing between your fingers? What kind of soap do you use, if you hand wash?

Because I'm wearing them most of the day, I'm only wearing once before washing. Can I go 2 or 3 times, like pants/sweaters/hoodies?

Has someone out there found the best way to do this? Any good alternative to machine or handwashing, like a creative use of a salad spinner or something?
posted by Sparky Buttons to Home & Garden (39 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
What if every night you just hand-washed the one you wore that day? Then it’s two minutes a day instead of a long weekend chore.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:12 AM on October 13, 2020

I would try washing them with other laundry, but zipped inside a mesh laundry bag (the kind made for delicate items). That might keep the lint and hair off?
posted by sillysally at 10:13 AM on October 13, 2020 [41 favorites]

From the NY Times/Wirecutter:
How to Wash Cloth Face Masks
posted by XtineHutch at 10:14 AM on October 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Not sure what kind of mask you are using but I prefer the kind with a wire and probably wouldn’t put those in a machine - the wire wears out over time enough as it is.

I too hate handwashing, but I haven’t found a better option. I use some Dr. Bronners and just kind of gently scrub and rinse under the faucet. The nice thing is they air dry very quickly!
posted by cakelite at 10:15 AM on October 13, 2020 [4 favorites]

We put them in a "delicates bag" in with the usual laundry. (Always cold wash, in a HE washer.) We do a load of laundry every day, because we are two adults and two teens, so the masks never sit around very long.

We dry them stretched on a rack, to avoid the dryer shrinking the elastic bands.

I believe that make-up tends to accumulate on cotton masks, and I am not sure how to fix that: my wife doesn't wear much make-up. *shrug*
posted by wenestvedt at 10:17 AM on October 13, 2020 [5 favorites]

Seconding the mesh laundry bag. This is how we have been doing it. We have two cats, so our life is full of pet hair, but I don't notice my masks getting hairs on them from being washed.
posted by briank at 10:18 AM on October 13, 2020 [5 favorites]

We have the same routine as wenestvedt - mesh laundry bag and then hang to dry - but with slightly less frequent laundry so I've compensated with a larger number of masks per person. Sometimes they get a little bit scrumpled in the bag but they've been clean and are in good shape.
posted by machine at 10:25 AM on October 13, 2020 [3 favorites]

We wash ours in a mesh laundry bag with whatever's the next load of laundry, and because I am a laundry bag fan I have both open weave (these are for my pet-hairy socks, so the hair flushes out of the bag) and closed weave, which I use for bras and masks.

I do dry mine in the bag and that has been fine for all the fabric masks I have, but hanging to dry wouldn't be a huge deal.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:29 AM on October 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You can take a mask into the shower with you, soap it up, rinse it, and hang it to dry.
posted by TORunner at 10:36 AM on October 13, 2020 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Ditto mesh laundry bag, but if I really need a mask washed, I just wash it in the shower with me
posted by gaspode at 10:37 AM on October 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Anything that doesn't have a wire, I just throw in the laundry; a lot of mine are the cheaparoonio cotton 10-for-30-dollar kind from Staples, so that's fine. Anything with a wire or that's a bit more expensive I bring into the shower with me and wash them while I'm waiting for my conditioner to work. I use whatever body wash I'm using and rub them each between my hands for 20 seconds, then rinse. I usually only do a few at a time that way so it's not too time consuming.
posted by holborne at 10:38 AM on October 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Nthing the closed weave laundry bags; I have two, with rings on them that slip over a hook at the front door. The bag for dirties hangs there, once I have another load of laundry or it's full enough (I have kids and do laundry most days), the 'dirty' bag gets zipped shut and thrown in the wash. Clean masks have a basket and then the clean bag turns into the dirty bag, etc.

Mine go through the dryer because I like the heat to take a stab at the germs on them as well, but the masks do degrade faster.

We all use 2+ masks a day if we're at school/working, once they get damp they are less effective. I wouldn't personally rewear one after a half day or a day's use.
posted by warriorqueen at 10:38 AM on October 13, 2020 [4 favorites]

I have been doing laundry as infrequently as possible since I share a communal laundry room with hundreds of people. I mesh bag when I put in a load, but I have to hand wash in between. I use my usual laundry detergent, hottish water (don't burn myself but), and try to mimic the cycles of a washing machine - wet, scrub with detergent, mash around while rinsing, wring out. Then hang to dry. I have a VERY sheddy kitty and have noticed no fur on my masks with either method.
posted by wellred at 10:40 AM on October 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I just throw them in with the rest of my laundry, not even in a bag or anything because I'm a heathen. But when they come out I do a hearty shake and then run one of those tapey lint rollers over the inside of them before I put them away. Gets rid of 99% of Truman remnants and takes maybe an additional 120 seconds total in the entire laundry processing um process.
posted by phunniemee at 10:41 AM on October 13, 2020 [3 favorites]

It takes me 1 minute to wash them in a sink with hot water and hand soap and hang up to dry. The end!
posted by tiny frying pan at 10:44 AM on October 13, 2020 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I just wash 2-3 at a time while I'm in the shower and then hang them on some empty towel hooks to dry. My bathroom gets excellent ventilation so they dry quickly this way -- ymmv. When I'm doing laundry (every 2 weeks or so) I will throw whatever ones are around in with the wash because I always use a cold water wash, so I don't worry too much about the elastic. I usually air dry them regardless.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:48 AM on October 13, 2020

If you want to preserve the wire maybe try a bra ball? It’s like a delicates bag made especially for one (underwire) bra.
posted by mskyle at 11:03 AM on October 13, 2020

I wash my mask when I do my handwashing when I come home. Wash hands, take off mask and put in sink, wash anything else (eg glasses), wash the mask, quickly wring out and hang to dry. (Then wash hands again.) I put up a couple of those temporary command strip hooks in our entrance bathroom; one holds masks that are drying and the other holds masks that are already dried. It adds only seconds to the routine, and since it's part of the routine, it always gets done.
posted by Superilla at 11:18 AM on October 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I use a lint roller on mine after washing. I keep them in a dedicated pet-hair free space, and have another lint roller in my car for when I put them on in case lint or pet hair still finds a way to stick to them.
posted by mollywas at 11:21 AM on October 13, 2020

Can anyone clarify whether cold water + soap is sufficient to get rid of germs on a cloth mask, or must there be heat involved?
posted by mefireader at 12:11 PM on October 13, 2020

I do mesh bag and then wash and dry with everything else (warm and cold, tumble dry). Even the ones with nose wires. I sew my own, though, so I can be reckless.
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:21 PM on October 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

> Can anyone clarify whether cold water + soap is sufficient to get rid of germs on a cloth mask, or must there be heat involved?

That Wirecutter article says soap and cold water is enough; the water doesn't have to be hot.
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:24 PM on October 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

I wash them by themselves (10-20 at a time) in the washing machine, then dryer, then iron. No mesh bag. I do this because I developed dermatitis from the laundry detergent I used for everything for ages, and so now the masks get washed with their own special soap. We couldn't figure out what was doing it because I'd used that detergent on everything for years, but it turned out that having it against my face was too much for me (even though I'd washed pillowcases with it). So I would be wary of the suggestions to use body wash or a hand soap that might be strongly scented, just in case.

(Like The corpse in the library, I sew my own masks, so I can afford to be cavalier with them.)
posted by fiercecupcake at 1:42 PM on October 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

The biochemist in our department who sews masks and used to work on SARS suggests ironing to sanitize and washing in a mesh bag with other laundry. Personally, I bring mine in when I come home and just drop it in the bottom of the sink to hand wash at the same time I wash my hands, which is the first thing I do after coming inside. I hit both it and my hands with a squirt of diluted dish soap from a foaming soap dispenser, agitate well under warm water, and then rinse both my hands and the mask off well. I then hang it in the shower to dry. The whole thing takes maybe an extra 5 seconds longer than just washing my hands.
posted by deludingmyself at 2:55 PM on October 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

I handwash with Soak detergent—doesn’t require rinsing!
posted by ocherdraco at 3:17 PM on October 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

We immerse our cloth masks in a pot of boiling water for about five minutes then let them hang dry over the shower curtain.
posted by merriment at 3:28 PM on October 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

The inventor of the N95 mask material published an emergency article about how to clean and reuse them now that there is such overwhelming need in medical settings.

The easiest method he describes to decontaminate them is to leave them at room temperature for three days. The half-life of the coronavirus is about 6 hours, so in three days, essentially all of the coronavirus is dead. This is clearly not optimal if your mask is dirty for other reasons (food, makeup, whatever), but in general, it doesn't need to be washed or disinfected every time if you have enough masks to rotate through them and leave three or four days between reuse.
posted by Sublimity at 4:07 PM on October 13, 2020 [5 favorites]

I have had it suggested to me that many of the chemicals in ordinary laundry detergent are potentially harmful when breathed. My informant was a medical professional, but not a pulmonologist who was noting that they expect the lung cancer rate to take a significant jump in a few years time due to everyone wearing masks cleaned in regular grocery store type laundry detergents. They are not a pulmonologist, as I said, so their advice to me could be a personal anxiety rather than something that people directly in the field of respiratory health are concerned about

A cursory internet search for information on the carcinogenic ingredients in detergent brought up several sites that did not provide citations but recommended the use of greener cleaning products and names specific ingredients to avoid.

I find the suggestion the detergent residue is bad for the lungs credible as walking down the laundry detergent aisle or standing under dryer vents has triggered asthma in me and in other people.

Hospitals launder their linen at an accredited facility that uses ozone and cold water rather than hot water and chlorine bleach. However it is not practical to use ozone at home as the residue is harmful, the same way that chlorine bleach is harmful to the lungs and repeated exposure to chlorine fumes is known to trigger asthma in children.

An alternative method of killing germs is to boil the masks. If they are all cotton with no metal nose pieces they survive this quite nicely. Five minutes at a rolling boil in a pot on the stove is sufficient to destroy germs in drinking water, and is therefore likely sufficient to kill germs in masks.

Simply leaving the masks four days between reuse should protect against coronavirus, but perhaps will not be a protection against some other germs which might survive, especially if they are encapsulated in droplets of skin oil. Those are the germs that tend to cause your face to break out or result in cold sores. It has also been recommended to me that one should brush ones teeth before putting on masks to reduce the amount of oral bacteria that will get on them.

If sterilizing them in a pot of boiling water is inconvenient they can also be microwaved. Again, if there is a metal nose piece this is not possible, but if the masks are metal free rinsing them well and then placing the saturated mask in the microwave for five minutes as part of your bed time routine might not be too inconvenient.

To dry them more quickly wring them out in a towel before you hang them up.
posted by Jane the Brown at 5:20 PM on October 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

A new study (well, a secondary analysis of data from an old study) from Australia found that masks need to be machine washed, with detergent. In the linked article, hand-washing was found to be associated with increased risk of contamination - though based on data from health care workers, so their exposure would be different than yours.

The lead author, Raina MacIntyre, is an epidemiologist and head of the biosecurity program at a research institute in Sydney. Her research includes personal protective equipment, vaccinology, epidemic response, emerging infectious diseases, and bioterrorism prevention.

I use a mesh bag and wash my masks with clothes but not with towels.
posted by lulu68 at 5:30 PM on October 13, 2020 [3 favorites]

I use a mesh bag for my masks, and as I (fruitlessly!) wear foundation underneath I’ve found turning the masks inside out gets more of the makeup off.
posted by ellieBOA at 11:41 PM on October 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

I started to use a lint roller on my machine-washed masks to get rid of the pet hair which plagues them (and every other piece of clothing which comes out of the washer :/)
posted by citands at 5:00 AM on October 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have a large jar, add hot water, detergent, masks, shake really well, let sit, repeat a few times. rinse, repeat. rinse again. I could probably use the salad spinner to spin-dry them a bit, but I just hang them on the stove handle.
posted by theora55 at 6:29 AM on October 14, 2020

I stick them in a bowl of hot water with dawn dish soap and vinegar. Soak for 30 minutes, scrub a bit (gently around the wire), squeeze out, and hang to dry.
posted by ananci at 7:47 AM on October 14, 2020

I wear a mask once, then let it sit for a few days. Then handwash in hot water with dishsoap in a bowl in the kitchen sink, then air-dry outside. I got enough masks that it's okay to have several of them just sitting in the used-masks waiting area. I usually do the washing in a batch once a week (washing all the masks that have been sitting for 3 days or more), but if I were going out more I might do batches twice a week.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:36 AM on October 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

I wear mine once, come home, toss it somewhere I won't be able to find it later, wear a different one next time, leave that one in the car by accident, order a couple more because I can't find any when I need them, find one under a chair in kitchen (how'd it get there? Who knows!), use that repeatedly for a week because I can't find any of the others until the new ones finally get here...
posted by WalkerWestridge at 11:49 AM on October 14, 2020 [4 favorites]

I think you might have more luck approaching this as a pet hair in the laundry problem as opposed to specifically a mask problem. I wash my masks in regular laundry and have never had a problem (but critically, don’t have pets). One tip I found is to put your laundry in the dryer before washing it for ten minutes or so, which will help shake out the pet hair and prevent it from getting washed into your masks. The heat doesn’t have to be on for this, just tumbling. They suggest a dryer sheet in that tip, but it’s optional (and I’d skip it since I don’t love the smell), and you can also apparently put reusable wool dryer balls in with your drying clothes to help reduce the staticky hair-to-fabric attractive force.

I would also suggest just buying more cloth masks so that you don’t have to wash them as frequently. There’s a big difference in convenience between having 7 and having 15.
posted by en forme de poire at 1:29 PM on October 14, 2020

Like ocherdraco, I hand wash with Soak detergent (there are probably plenty of other similar brands). Key is that all you do is soak them in water for 15 minutes and then drain - no scrubbing, no rinsing. I do it in the bathroom sink when I shower. I wouldn’t expect this to disinfect anything, but I’m not sure that’s necessary with a week in between uses.
posted by exutima at 6:06 PM on October 14, 2020

Sorry, I realize I probably used the word “disinfect” incorrectly. I meant to say I wouldn’t expect this to kill most germs on a surface, but here’s an article explaining how effective plain old soap is against the novel coronavirus.
posted by exutima at 6:12 PM on October 14, 2020

My wife and I just handwash ours after every wear. Since we have to wash our hands for 45 seconds every time we come home anyways it is really easy to just add mask washing into that mix. We just use the same hand soap and use it to simultaneously extend the handwashing time. Rinse thoroughly and hang on the towel rack in the bathroom to dry.
posted by srboisvert at 10:17 AM on October 19, 2020

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