Because we do not know how many people are infected with SARS-CoV-2 yet remain asymptomatic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the use of face masks when in public settings. Lately, many states have required their citizens to use face masks.
A lot of people now use cloth masks. When the pandemic started, cloth masks weren’t a thing yet and people had to get a surgical mask or N95 mask, which led to their shortage. As a result, doctors and healthcare staff had to reuse their N95 masks even when looking after patients with suspected or confirmed COVID-19.
Now the production of surgical masks and N95 masks has ramped up and it has become easier to purchase them online. Then again, there are still people who want to reuse their surgical masks and N95 masks.
Face masks and COVID-19 prevention
SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted through respiratory droplets emitted when a person talks, sneezes, or coughs. You can get the virus if you inhale these droplets. Moreover, respiratory droplets that have the virus may land on surfaces and objects. You may get the SARS-CoV-2 virus if you touch a contaminated object or surface then you touch your nose, mouth, or eyes.
A face mask traps these respiratory droplets so they would not be inhaled by those nearby and do not contaminate objects and surfaces. Your face mask also offers a certain level of protection from the virus by filtering out small or large droplets depending on the type of face mask you wear.
Can you reuse a surgical mask or N95 mask?
Surgical masks and N95 masks are disposable devices that are ideally discarded after use. A surgical mask and N95 mask may be contaminated by bacteria and viruses and are better thrown away after use.
How to clean and reuse N95 masks
Some studies show that you may actually decontaminate your N95 mask at home. Just be sure not to clean the N95 mask with soap and water, or spray it with aerosol or alcohol. These methods may cause the electrostatic charge of the N95 mask to break down, preventing the N95 mask from filtering out small airborne particles. If you use these methods in cleaning your N95 mask, its efficiency will be reduced to a third or even half.
One way to reuse your N95 mask is to rotate them so that each N95 mask is rested for at least 3 days before it is used again. This method relies on the belief that SARS-CoV-2 could not survive more than 72 hours on the surface of an N95 mask. Some say that it is even better to let the N95 mask rest for seven days. The disadvantage of following this technique is you will need several N95 masks and that is assuming you only use one N95 mask every day.
Another way to clean and reuse an N95 mask is to use your kitchen oven. Although this is easy to do, it requires a second oven so as not to contaminate your main oven where food is prepared. Researchers at Michigan State University used a laboratory oven and found out that an N95 mask can be effectively decontaminated by heating it for 30 minutes at 70 degrees Celsius.
Boiling your N95 mask
By submerging an N95 mask in boiling water for three minutes, the mask will be disinfected without significantly affecting its filtration efficiency. Apply enough pressure to keep the N95 mask submerged and do not stir it excessively. If your N95 mask comes with paper layers, boiling it is not advisable as the paper layers that hold the filter may separate.
How to clean and reuse surgical masks
A study shows that disposable surgical masks can be disinfected using heat without changing the efficiency of the surgical mask. Disinfecting a surgical mask for half an hour at 158 degrees Fahrenheit or above effectively destroys SARS-CoV-2. This can be done at home using an oven.
But can you boil your surgical mask? Boiling only works on face masks made of cloth or polypropylene. Your surgical masks are not meant to be boiled as it is made of a soft cloth that is just a tad stronger than paper towels. Boiling will damage your surgical mask. It will also make your surgical mask either less effective or totally useless.
How to conserve your surgical mask and N95 mask
To conserve your surgical mask and N95 mask and make sure they are available when you need them, you should know what type of face mask to use depending on the situation.
The CDC says that you should use a cloth mask when in public settings. You do not need a surgical mask or N95 mask when doing your grocery and running an errand.
According to the World Health Organization, you have to wear a surgical mask if you are not feeling well. The surgical mask will trap your respiratory secretions and saliva, thereby preventing the virus from infecting others in case you have it.
The N95 mask is for use by healthcare staff looking after patients that may have the virus. It is particularly important during aerosol-generating procedures as well as tasks that may involve high-pressure streams of body fluids.
Surgical masks and N95 masks are important tools to slow down the spread of COVID-19. If all of us wear face masks and practice social distancing and frequent handwashing, the spread of the virus would be significantly reduced and lives would be saved.