How To Sanitize Your N95 Masks 

The coronavirus brought a lot of things with it. It brought social distancing measures (which is the reason you can no longer have brunch with all of your friends like a regular person), lockdowns, and most commonly, masks.

After a few days of mixed messages from health authorities, we got the recommendations we've now been hearing non-stop for the last few months. First off, you need to wear a mask. Secondly, you have to wash your hands regularly. Thirdly, you have to stay away from your friends and anyone else. Fourthly, sneeze into the insides of your elbows, and lastly, whatever you do, don't touch your face. 

Of all these measures, the most effective and most practicable one is easily mask-wearing. It's little wonder, then, that it has been the focus of health authorities. Whatever you do, wear your mask, has been the message. And it has been heard loud and clear. 

Different Kinds Of Mask

Unsurprisingly, "wear a mask" isn't as straightforward as it sounds. The first question is, what mask? There are so many masks, and they are all made with different materials and are constructed differently. This means they offer different levels of protection, and as such, are useful for different situations. 

For example, the masks that health care professionals who care for Covid-19 patients wear aren't the same kinds that the average joe would wear. Health care professionals wear super protective masks called N95 masks, and everyone else is advised to wear anything from disposable surgical masks to homemade cloth masks.

The question now is this; aren't these masks supposed to offer the same level of protection? Well, ideally, they are. But this isn't an ideal world. N95 masks provide the highest level of protection available, but there are not enough N95 masks to go around. This means that we have to prioritize use and ensure that these masks go to the people most in need of them. And these people are healthcare professionals. 

So what do the rest of us use? Simple, we use less effective masks. And to what degree are these masks less effective? Well, they provide the highest level of protection if you're an asymptomatic or presymptomatic carrier of Covid-19. With these masks, it becomes more difficult for you to spread the pathogen inadvertently. Therefore, these lower class masks don't protect you from the pathogen— instead, they help protect people from you if you're a carrier. 

The Scarcity Of Masks

In any case, there are millions and millions of people in need of masks. This, unsurprisingly, would lead to scarcity during the first months of the pandemic (and till now, masks remained scarce to some extent). And during those months, health authorities decided to authorize the limited reuse of certain kinds of masks. 

But masks can't just be reused. There are specific processes they have to go through before they can be right to be used again. This is true for both regular masks and the more effective ones called N95 masks. 

How To Clean Reusable Masks 

If you own and use a reusable face mask like a store-bought cloth mask or a homemade one, you really should be cleaning it as often as you can manage. How often? Well, think of your face mask as more important than your underwear. Think of it as something so important that you can't reuse it without cleaning it thoroughly first. 

Each time you put on your face mask, you expose it to thousands and thousands and pathogens. First, there are buggers, sweat, and all sorts from your face that dirties the insides of the mask. Seriously— imagine everything that your face produces, going on one piece of cloth for the entire day. Then, there are the possible pathogens from outside that affect the surface of the mask. If you've been near a Covid patient, this may include coronavirus pathogens. 

Don't you think it's smart to clean a mask that has been exposed to all of these and more? Of course, it is. 

Before washing your face mask, you need to take it off. That may seem obvious, sure, but there may be people who think it's a smart idea to wash their face mask while it's on their faces. To clear all doubts, it's not. And yeah, standing in the shower with your face mask on is not a smart way to clean the mask either. 

Now, you can't just put off your face mask as you like. Before putting it off, make sure you wash your hands thoroughly for about 20 seconds. Or better still, make use of an alcohol-based sanitizer. Once you've made sure your hands are clean, proceed to remove the face mask. Make sure to do this by touching the loops around your ears—  do not touch the surface of the mask itself. While it's not compulsory (as you've washed your hands), try not to touch your face. Touching your face could introduce pathogens and microbes to open inlets on your body, and that could lead to pretty terrible consequences.  

Once you've removed the mask, put it in a safe place in readiness for cleansing. This could be a disposable bag or a laundry basket. Whatever you do, make sure it doesn't come in contact with clean clothes that you may use later. Please do not put it where it could contaminate other household items too. For example, it would be pretty irresponsible to dump your face mask in the kitchen or the living room. It would also be harmful to dump it anywhere children can reach, as they can easily get contaminated by it. 

After storing the mask in the laundry basket, make sure to rewash your hands thoroughly. This is vital, as you may have handled some pathogens while removing the mask from your face. If you're using a fabric mask, you don't need to worry. Most fabric masks can be washed with regular clothes. However, if your face mask is made with fabric that has to be dry cleaned like chiffon, delicate lace, or silk, you should probably consider changing it to one that doesn't need to be cleaned. If it can't be washed in detergent and hot water, change it. It's seriously not worth the stress. 

When running your face mask through the washing machine, make sure it goes through the longest and highest heat cycle available. After that, ensure that it goes through the dryer at the highest level available. 

What of hand-washing? Well, that's an option as well. But it would be best if you were careful. You must avoid touching your face while hand washing your face mask. Yes, we know that sometimes we subconsciously touch our faces, but you need to avoid doing it this time. You need to treat an unwashed face mask like a biohazard and be deliberate with all your actions while handling it. When hand washing the mask, you have to scrub it thoroughly for at least half a minute. Throwing it in water and taking it back out would not do. You should also use a strong detergent or a bar soap that can kill microbes. You could also use bleach if you want. 

After hand washing the mask and drying it, you need to wash your hands thoroughly with soap too. Drying should be done in the sun. Do not try to dry your face mask in your home, as it wouldn't have access to direct sunlight. Remember only to take down the mask when it is completely dried. 

How To Clean And Sanitise N95 Masks

Unlike cloth masks, N95 masks cannot be laundered, or hand washed. Throwing an N95 mask into a washing machine will destroy the mask and make it just as useful as curved cardboard. And you wouldn't want to use curved cardboard as a face mask— more importantly, health care professionals would be exposed to infectious pathogens if they used it as a face mask. So, no, N95 masks cannot go through conventional cleaning methods. 

In an ideal world, N95 masks are single-use. It would be best if you threw them away after a single use (in fact, best practice is to throw them away after contact with a single patient). But the world right now is quite far from ideal. N95 masks have been scarce from the very first month of the pandemic till now. Yes, even today, health care workers are finding it difficult to get new N96 masks. This sad state of events means several local and state authorities have explored ways for N95 masks to be cleaned and reused. Now, this reuse isn't for an infinite number of times. It's a limited reuse policy, and it's a way for hospitals to manage their stock of N95 makes. 

Since these kinds of masks are the only way for you to truly protect yourself from the virus (all others protect others from you), It follows that cleaning and sanitizing them would be more difficult. To clean the N95 mask, you have to find a way to sanitize and disinfect it without losing its structural integrity. This disinfection method must also be able to get rid of coronavirus microbes that stick to the mask's surface. 

There are only three disinfection methods that can adequately clean the mask and still allow it to maintain a level of structural integrity. 

Moist Heat Integration: 

Moist Heat Integration is a kind of disinfection done by exposing the mask to very hot air (about 70 degrees Celsius) with very high relative humidity (about 80%). This should be done for about sixty to seventy minutes. Several studies have shown that this disinfection method can kill the H1N1 flu virus, but we aren't quite sure how effective it may be when used for other pathogens. However, we can be relatively sure that it will kill coronavirus pathogens. How can we be so sure? Well, a recent study showed that "single heat treatment rendered SARS-CoV-2 undetectable in all mask samples."

Ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI):

This method of disinfection is carried out by putting the mask under ultraviolet light. However, it's important to note that this method's effectiveness is highly dependent on the strength of the UV light. Importantly, UV rays can be hazardous, especially if they get on the skin, so you need to be careful if you're using this disinfection method. If you're using this sanitation method, make sure you use goggles and gloves to protect your eyes and skin. 

Vaporous hydrogen peroxide (VHP):

This method of disinfection makes use of vaporous hydrogen peroxide. The vapor of the chemical is allowed to run through the mask, thereby disinfecting it. The vapor of hydrogen peroxide is used because it is less damaging than the liquid, and it will leave the structural integrity of the mask intact. And yes, studies have proven this method to be effective in killing coronavirus microbes. 

Asides from these three methods, there have been some other methods that have shown promising results. Some of those methods include steam treatment and the use of liquid hydrogen peroxide. However, a lot more research needs to go into checking out the integrity of these methods. For one, we all know that these masks must remain functionally viable to have any use, so any method that doesn't guarantee that is rather useless. 

Now, if you're reading this and wondering where to buy N95 masks, well, we have bad news. The CDC hasn't recommended N95 masks for civilian use. Getting one and using it right now would mean one less mask for first responders on the front lines fighting this virus. A simple homemade mask should provide enough protection for you. Of course, these masks should be used in conjunction with other safety measures.