Editor’s note: This article was published on October 12, 2020. COVID-19 information and recommendations are subject to change. For the most up-to-date information, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website or view our most recent COVID-19 blog posts.
Disposable facemasks, commonly referred to as surgical masks or medical masks, are typically made of three layers that include a thin plastic piece placed between two non-woven fabric pieces.
The thin plastic piece acts as a filter that stops germs from passing the barrier. A disposable facemask typically features elastic ear loops and pleats to allow people to expand the mask over their nose and chin.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, disposable facemasks have been in high demand as they provide basic protection from the virus for the medical community.
As disposable facemasks have become readily available in stores, many people in the general public have started to switch to facemasks. However, you should care for facemasks differently than cloth masks.
“Most people are used to cloth masks and there has been a lot of education created about them, but not much has been said about facemasks,” said Marilyn King, infection prevention specialist with Marshfield Clinic Health System.
Facemasks should be thrown away periodically
Unlike cloth masks that can be laundered and reused, disposable facemasks cannot be laundered or cleaned. This is why they should be thrown away after a period of time.
For maximum protection, you should change out your facemask at least daily.
If your facemask is soiled, damaged, wet or does not fit well anymore, it should be thrown away immediately.
“Facemasks were not made to be worn for weeks on end,” King said. “The longer facemasks are used, the less effective they are because they can get soiled and damaged.”
Facemasks are not considered biohazardous waste, so these can be thrown away in a normal garbage can. In order for an infectious material to be considered biohazardous waste, it must be pourable, drippable, squeezable or flakeable.
Using a facemask for short intervals
Many people only use their disposable facemask in short, 15-minute intervals, like when going into a store. In this case, you should discard the facemask after:
- At most a week of use, or
- When the combined time of use totals more than 12 hours of use.
In between uses, your facemask should be stored in a paper bag or other container that allows the mask to dry. The proper procedure to take the mask off and store it includes:
- Remove the facemask using the ear loops. Do not touch the outside of the mask.
- Holding the ear loops, fold the facemask in half turning the mask inside out. The outside of the facemask should be facing inwards.
- Place the facemask in the container.
- Wash your hands.
It is recommended to reuse a facemask in this manner to conserve the supply of facemasks, but it has its risks.
“Reusing a facemask can be tricky because there are very important steps you need to take to remain protected,” King said. “If you are not comfortable with this process, it is ok if you wear a new mask for every use. The goal of a mask is to keep everyone safe, so if you don’t feel safe with this process, then you shouldn’t use it.”
Disposable facemasks are relatively cheap to purchase (as low as 20 cents per mask), so it is ok if you throw the facemask away more frequently than suggested above.
To learn more about the proper way to wear a facemask or if you have questions, talk to your care team.