Caring for Cloth Masks

As the world makes a slow comeback from the coronavirus pandemic, the CDC is now recommending individuals wear a new piece of ‘attire’, the face mask or any face covering, any time one goes out where social distancing is hard to practice such as to grocery stores, pharmacies, or other places where other people are likely to be present in number.  In recent days, many retail outlets are requiring this new attire of their customers. Employers, too, may be requiring employees who are unable to maintain the recommended 6 foot distance from others during the course of essential work functions to wear masks. It seems that for the foreseeable future, the face mask or covering of the nose and mouth will be a necessary part of our attire.

Hand washing and social distancing remain the critical means of disease prevention. When going out for essentials or required in the workplace, cloth masks are becoming essential attire.  While not as effective as clinical masks, properly made cloth masks can help slow the spread of COVID-19 by blocking large droplets from coughs and sneezes. 

Many have put their DIY skills to work and created cloth masks at home for themselves and others.  In a previous blog, I shared guidelines for DIY face masks.  However, acquiring a face mask is only step one.  Step two is wearing it to limit the spread of germs.  STEP THREE IS CARING FOR IT TO KEEP IT EFFECTIVE AND SAFE.  There are differing reports on whether coronavirus can live on clothing or cloth.  The general thought is that the coronavirus is more likely to live on hard surfaces than soft surfaces like fabric.  Despite that, the CDC urges laundering of cloth masks after each use, daily, or when wet or soiled.  When regular use is required, having multiple masks will be necessary. 

A piece by Kansas State University Environmental Health and Safety says a washing machine and dryer is adequate for cleaning.  The Good Housekeeping Institute Cleaning Lab suggests that face masks be washed with hot water (160֯F) in the washing machine and tumbled dried on high heat with other similar items.  Masks can also be hand washed by lathering masks with soap and scrubbing for 20 seconds or more with warm to hot water, rinsing, and tossing into the dryer.  Non-scented/allergy-free detergents should be used for laundering masks per guidelines from the University of Iowa and dryer sheets should not be used.  Further, masks can be ironed on the cotton or linen setting to further kill any remaining germs provided the masks are made of cotton.  Sanitizing face masks in the microwave, oven, or boiling water is not recommended.   A mask that is damaged or that no longer fits properly to the face should be disposed and replaced.

If filters are being used in conjunction with a cloth mask, filters too, need to be properly cleaned or replaced.  Coffee filters and paper towels are not washable so should be replaced after each use.  HVAC filters and non-woven interfacings are washable so can be laundered in the same way as the mask; however, the filter’s effectiveness decreases with each washing and will eventually disintegrate.

Masks need to be carefully removed from the face after use.  Individuals should take care not to touch their eyes, nose, or mouth when removing the mask; only the elastic ear pieces or head/neck ties should be handled.  Used masks should be placed outside down on a piece of paper or in a bag until laundering with hand washing following immediately.

As discussed above, cloth masks can provide limited protection.  Proper care of the mask is important to provide protection and to maintain the health of the wearer. 

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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2 thoughts on “Caring for Cloth Masks

  1. I’m wondering if there is a typo about dryer sheets. Should or should not be used?

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