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How Long Can You Wear a Disposable Mask?

Face mask getting disposed in a trash can
by: Claire Nulla
January 2, 2024

Wearing a disposable mask is a crucial measure to protect yourself and others from infectious diseases, especially during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

However, you should understand the limitations of disposable masks and how to use them safely.

How to safely remove, clean and store a disposable mask

Firstly, let’s clarify what are considered disposable face masks. These include:

  • Surgical masks
  • Medical masks
  • Disposable respirator masks (N95 and KN95)

On the other hand, a cloth face mask is a type of reusable face mask that you can wash and wear again.

Wearing a disposable mask is crucial for protecting yourself and others from infectious diseases. However, there may be situations where reusing a disposable mask becomes necessary due to limited supplies or specific circumstances.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you must follow the manufacturer’s guide regarding the number of days you can wear a mask, especially a disposable face mask.

Experts suggest that you can wear a disposable face mask for a maximum of 40 hours or about five times, especially when in healthcare settings.

However, reusing a surgical mask could be the only option in certain situations, especially for healthcare workers.

Following proper procedures when removing, cleaning and storing a used mask is important to ensure safety and effectiveness.

Removal of the mask

When removing a used disposable mask, you can minimize the risk of contamination by following these steps.

  1. Clean hands: Before removing the mask, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use a hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol.
  2. Handle the mask with care: Avoid touching the front of the mask, as it may be contaminated. Grasp the mask by the ear loops or ties to remove it from your face.
  3. Be gentle: Slowly and carefully lift the ear loops or untie the ties to remove the mask, ensuring minimal contact with your face and clothing.
  4. Don’t touch your face: Avoid touching your face, particularly your eyes, nose and mouth, during the removal process to prevent potential contamination.

Cleaning the mask

Cleaning a used disposable mask can help eliminate residual particles and improve hygiene. While disposable masks are primarily designed for single use, certain situations may warrant limited reuse.

Follow these guidelines:

Visual inspection: Before cleaning the mask, inspect it for any visible soiling or damage. If the mask is visibly dirty, damaged or wet, it should be discarded and not reused.

Laundering method (if applicable): If the mask is made of cloth material and designed for washing, follow the manufacturer’s instructions for laundering. Typically, cloth masks can be washed with soap or detergent in hot water (preferably 60-90°C or 140-194°F) and then dried thoroughly before reuse.

Storage of the mask

Proper storage is crucial to maintain the integrity and cleanliness of a used disposable mask for potential reuse. Follow these steps to store the mask safely:

  • Ensure dryness: Before storing the mask, make sure it’s completely dry. Moisture can promote the growth of microorganisms, which renders the mask less effective.
  • Use a breathable container: Place the clean, dry mask in a paper bag or a breathable container for air to circulate. Avoid using plastic bags or airtight containers, as they can trap moisture and compromise mask integrity.
  • Labelling and identification: Clearly label the storage container or plastic bag with the date of storage and any relevant information to track the usage history of the mask. This will help ensure proper rotation and timely disposal when necessary.
  • Isolation period: Depending on the situation and guidelines from health authorities, it may be advisable to store the mask for a specific isolation period, such as 72 hours, to allow any potential viral particles to become inactive.

Reevaluation before reuse

Before reusing a stored disposable mask, it’s crucial to reassess its condition. Conduct a visual inspection to ensure the mask is not damaged, soiled or compromised in any way. If any concerns arise, it’s best to discard the mask and use a fresh one to maintain optimal protection.

The reuse of disposable masks should be considered as a last resort when other mask options are unavailable. It’s always recommended to have an adequate supply of fresh masks for optimal protection.

Pile of face masks

How to sterilize disposable face masks before reusing them

While disposable masks are intended for single use, there may be situations where sterilizing and reusing them becomes necessary.

Follow these guidelines for safe sterilization:

  • Check the manufacturer’s instructions: Some disposable masks aren’t designed for reuse and attempting to sterilize them may compromise their effectiveness. Always refer to the manufacturer’s guidelines.
  • Steam sterilization: Place the mask in a clean, open-weave fabric bag and steam it using a steamer or by hanging it above boiling water for at least 10 minutes. Make sure that the mask remains dry during the process.
  • Oven sterilization: Preheat the oven to 158°F (70°C) and place the mask on a clean, heat-resistant surface for 30 minutes. Avoid using this method if the mask contains any metal components.
  • Ultraviolet (UV) light sterilization: If available, carefully expose both sides of the mask to UV light for at least 30 minutes.

These methods aren’t foolproof and should only be considered as a last resort when other mask options are unavailable.

How many times can disposable face masks be reused?

Disposable face masks are primarily designed for single use. However, extended use or limited reuse may be necessary, but there’s no hard and fast rule for its reuse in certain situations where mask supplies are limited.

However, the efficacy and safety of reused masks can vary depending on several factors, including the mask type and individual usage conditions. The CDC suggests discarding disposable face masks after five uses as long as they’re not soiled and have no physical damage.

The general recommendation is to avoid reusing disposable masks whenever possible. Reusing masks may compromise their effectiveness and increase the risk of contamination.

What to do with disposable face masks after reusing them

After reusing disposable face masks, it would be wise to dispose of them immediately. Reusing them means you’ve already exhausted their quality.

To dispose of the reused face masks, place them in a paper bag and throw them in a yellow-labeled trash can.

Can disposable face masks be reused? Parting thoughts

While disposable masks are primarily intended for single use, there may be situations where reusing them becomes necessary. However, it’s crucial to understand that the effectiveness and safety of reused masks can be compromised. It is always recommended to have an adequate supply of fresh masks available.

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