With the COVID-19 pandemic, face masks have been hard to come by. Due to the shortage, many people have begun to reuse masks and even hospitals have advised their staff to conserve PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) supplies such as face masks and gowns.
Since most masks were designed as disposable, single-use items, it begs the question - Is it actually safe to reuse masks during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Since there are many types of masks that are available, the answer to this question depends on the type of mask you are using. Now more than ever, it is crucial to understand the various types of masks and how they deal with the virus.
To help you, we’ve created this guide that details the various types of masks available along with the risks associated with reusing each one of them.
There are six different types of masks that we cover in this guide where we detail a few of their benefits and shortcomings and discuss how effective they are against coronavirus before going into how protective they are upon repeated uses.
The Types of Masks:
- Extremely tight & secure fit
- Uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time
- Needs to be fitted properly
- Cannot be reused - bacteria and viruses can remain on the respirator
Respirators are one of the most widely used types of masks currently. Originally designed to protect coal miners from the hazardous smoke and dust present in the air, respirators are designed to have a very tight fit onto the face. This tight fit ensures that the air has to pass through the filter in order to reach the lungs.
With varying filtration efficiencies, respirators are very effective at protecting the wearer from liquids and hazardous substances present in the air including chemicals, dust, fumes, and other airborne particles.
Types of Respirators
Everyone is now familiar with N95’s there are a few other types of respirators of interest for preventing the spread of COVID-19. All respirators tend to have very efficient levels of filtration and should be validated by NIOSH (National Institute for Operational Safety and Health) to ensure they deliver proper levels of protection. There are four versions of the respirators that are important for COVID-19: N95, N99, P95, and R95.
P95 & R95
The Issues with Fit
The respirator is designed to form a very tight seal but it needs to be placed on the face correctly. Failure to do so removes the benefit of using a respirator. Due to this, the CDC requires medical staff to be trained on how to properly wear it and must take a yearly test to show they can properly fit the device onto their face. If you have a respirator and are planning on using it, be sure to follow the manufacturers' guidelines on how to wear the respirator.
With this tight fit and the dense filter material, respirators tend to sacrifice the user’s comfort. A respirator can get very hot and humid around the mouth and nose because of how tightly it fits around the face. Because of this, it can be difficult to resist the temptation to fiddle with the respirator so make sure that you are conscious of this and avoid touching your mask at all costs.
Are Respirators Reusable?
We’ve established that the filtration effectiveness is pretty remarkable but are these N95 masks reusable? To put it simply, the answer is no.
The N95 respirators were designed as a single-use, disposable device. According to manufacturers, you should replace it when it becomes difficult to breathe or if the filter is dirty or damaged.
The reason they need to be replaced frequently is that particles get stuck into the filters and begin to ruin the breathability. These respirators work by filtering our particles through the air using a dense tangle of polypropylene filaments. The particles have to flow around the webs of the filter until they crash and get stuck within the fibers of the respirator.
This is exactly what is happening to the virus particles. From the air, they get sucked into the respirator where they get trapped within the fibers and are prevented from entering your lungs. More and more of these viral particles build up on the mask as you continually use it.
Reusing these respirators to prevent the spread of COVID-19 means that the virus is embedded within the mask where it could remain active for up to 3 days. With prolonged use, the N95 acts as a concentrator for all of the particles in the air, including the virus. Because of this, it is crucial to avoid touching the exterior of the respirator when taking it off and it is also important to avoid reuse to prevent the build-up of the virus on the material.
You may see medical staff have been reusing their respirators due to supply shortages and desperation rather than standard operating policies. To kill the virus on these respirators between use, some healthcare workers have taken to spraying the respirator with ethanol, but each time that happens, the fibers dramatically loosen and the respirator can no longer filter as efficiently. This exposes the wearer to the virus much more dramatically.
With these respirators, it is best to dispose of them each day.
Surgical Face Masks
- Less tightly fitted than respirators
- Acts as a physical barrier for protection
- Can be easily damaged by any liquid
- Cannot be reused - most are not antimicrobial
Surgical masks are the second most common form of masks that are being used during the COVID-19 pandemic. When it comes to the actual filtration mechanism, surgical masks utilize a similar process as a respirator. However, surgical masks vary from respirators by not having an extremely tight seal. Instead, these masks have a much looser fit.
The FDA has stated that this looser fit makes these masks completely ineffective and useless at filtering out small particles. However, many scientific studies have proven otherwise. One such study showed that even accounting for the leakage, surgical masks could still filter 60% of 0.3 micron particles. They are even more beneficial when you consider the fact that microbes from the respiratory tract tend to spread by droplets or aerosols in the air that are much larger than these 0.3 micron particles.
In a pandemic, surgical masks can dramatically help to control the crisis by preventing those who are already infected from spreading the virus and by protecting those who are not yet infected by filtering out the viral particles.
Antimicrobial Surgical Face Masks
Are Surgical Masks Reusable?
No. Surgical masks should not be reused. As soon as they are soiled or damaged, they are rendered useless.
These masks were created to be disposed of after interacting with patients or operating during a medical procedure so there are a few reasons why these are poor masks to reuse.
Surgical masks are rendered useless by moisture. A wearer’s saliva and moist breath will inevitably end up on the mask and will begin to damage it the longer it is worn. In accordance with CEBM, a mask’s efficiency drops once the mask is moist and should be disposed of immeadietly.
Surgical masks have a water resistant coating only on the front side of the mask. The back of the mask lacks this coating and renders the mask soiled from the inside out when moist.
A standard surgical mask provides some protection from COVID-19 as it acts as a physical barrier to protect you from the virus but also protects those around you from discharge from your own body (if you are harboring the virus or an asymptomatic carrier). If the mask is used when soiled or damaged, the mask acts more like a sponge for bacteria and viruses than a layer of protection.
The surgical mask works well for short instances (like a trip to the grocery store) but they are not well designed for use during long stretches of the day or through multiple uses. Having a pack of these masks is good in a pinch but we definitely do not recommend reusing them. Once they have been used, they should go in the trash.
Additionally, most are not good at dealing with bacteria or viruses for long periods of time. Unless you have an antimicrobial surgical face mask, the germs will remain on the mask for up to 3 days where they can spread to other items you have if the mask is not handled with care.
Reusable Antimicrobial Face Masks
- Permanent antimicrobial properties to kill germs
- Highly effective filtration
Reusable antimicrobial masks combine the best features of all types of masks which makes them ideal for protecting against COVID-19. When looking for these masks, be sure that they have been tested extensively and are in compliance with international standards such as ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) or AATCC (American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists)
These masks can vary in the mechanism of action for the antiviral property. For example, the OURA Air Mask uses compounds such as silver oxide, titanium dioxide, and zinc oxide in order to inactivate the viral particles. Together, these compounds work to prevent microbial growth.
The antimicrobial effects combined with high levels of filtration make them ideal for preventing the spread of COVID-19 since they don’t just filter germs, they work to kill them.
One important thing to look for when choosing one of these masks is for the antimicrobial compounds to be embedded within the threads of the mask rather than just coated on the surface. This embedding process permanently locks the antimicrobial feature into the mask. Conversely, any coatings on a fabric will quickly fade away after the mask is washed and make the mask ineffective at killing germs in the long run.
Are these Antimicrobial Masks Reusable?
Yes! These masks are arguably the most ideal mask to reuse with COVID-19 in mind.
Since they are antimicrobial and washable, they can be used consistently without any loss of the antiviral functionality. Since these masks have antimicrobial properties, they also don’t have to be washed as frequently as other reusable masks since they are self-sterilizing
Air Pollution Masks
- Effective at filtration but not antimicrobial
- Reusable but needs to be washed frequently
WIth disposable masks in such high demand and a shortage of supply during this outbreak, many people have been scrambling to find reusable face masks and have turned to pollution masks instead.
These masks are designed to filter out ultra-fine particles from air pollution (e.g. smoke, smog, gas pollution, and more) very effectively. They are usually pretty effective at filtering out microbes from the air as well.
As we have established, it is not recommended to try to reuse a disposable, used, damaged, or old mask. There are many risk factors that come with trying to find methods to “clean” a used mask. With little scientific data backing those DIY cleaning tips on masks, it is best not to take the chance.
There are a few masks out there that are made of common fabrics like cotton that can be reused and washed but they offer no additional safety than a surgical mask or respirator.
Are Air Pollution Masks Reusable?
Yes, but there are some caveats. Air pollution masks were not designed for use during a pandemic. Since they do not have any antimicrobial features, the virus can live on the surface of the mask for up to 3 days. Because of this, it is important to wash your mask on a daily basis in order to ensure that you are not transferring any viral particles to your face or hands when you put the mask on or take it off.
Make sure you know how to properly handle a reusable air pollution mask if you decide to get one. That includes putting on, taking off, and knowing the proper sanitization methods for it.
- Many types of masks that are not typically tested
- Offers questionable levels of protection
- Generally reusable but needs to be washed frequently
With fashion masks, you may find yourself looking at higher price points in comparison to medical masks due to the fact that they use fabrics instead of disposable materials. However, the reality of the situation is that you won’t receive much protection from them at all.
These masks do not work as effective filters, especially compared to most other forms of masks on this page.
It is true that these fashion “accessories” will still act as a physical barrier for your face so it will provide some level of protection and is better than nothing during the pandemic. However, if these masks are made from common fabrics like cotton then there is almost no filtration protection provided by it. You might look good walking down the aisle of a grocery store but you will not be as protected from viruses, bacteria, or airborne particles.
Take some caution when looking at companies that sell “fashionable” or “stylish” masks when your priority is protection. It is possible for brand names to create effective masks but do the research and check for what laboratory tests the mask has run instead of just the style.
Are Fashion Masks Reusable?
Since these masks are more designed to look good than anything else, the results you will get are varied. If the mask feels flimsy or is easily soiled, we strongly advise against using the mask to protect yourself.
If the mask is easy to breathe in and is fitted well, it is possible to reuse it but be aware that the mask will be contaminated after each time it is used. Take extra care when handling the mask if there are no self-disinfecting qualities and be sure to wash it frequently.
Looking good is not as important as feeling good. For the fashionistas that want both style and function, you might be able to find a mask can deliver both for you. With all that said though, any form of protection is better than none.
- Extremely cheap and available
- Can be made from all sorts of materials
- Very ineffective methods of filtration
With infection rates growing and an increasingly growing demand for face masks,people are resorting to making their own masks with materials they have lying around the household such as old cotton t-shirts, pillowcases, and more. So does this work and how efficient are these?
We understand these are desperate times but there is a reason why masks have never been made with these basic household fabrics - They offer little to no protection. These masks offer some use and very minimal protection.
A study conducted in 2013 compared the filtration efficiency of masks made with household items to surgical masks. The study used masks that were made with linens, a kitchen towel, a scarf, pillowcase, a vacuum cleaner bag, and 100% cotton T-shirts.
Surgical masks had the highest filtration efficiency with the vacuum cleaner bag following in second. However, the vacuum cleaner bag was too thick to wear comfortably for extended periods of time. The 100% cotton T-shirt mask was noted to be most comfortable to wear but had just one-third of the filtration efficiency as a surgical mask.
A similar study was conducted in 2010 comparing surgical masks to common fabrics found in households. The results were conclusive with the findings from the 2013 study.
These particular masks can pose a serious threat. Even though these household items were inferior to the surgical masks, any form of protection is better than nothing. However, it is crucially important to make sure that you do not change your behavior and give into risk compensation since these household masks do not provide as much protection.
For better protection, when making the mask, it should have little to no airways. It is important to make sure the mask fits snuggly with your face.
Are homemade masks reusable?
Technically, yes. Just keep in mind that these homemade masks are drastically inferior to any manufactured, laboratory-tested face mask. There is a reason why many hospitals are not accepting these homemade sewn masks as donations.
However, since these masks don’t have any antimicrobial properties, it is crucial that you wash them on a daily basis in order to ensure that they are sterile before being placed on your face again.
Some Final Words
We hope this guide helped to clarify some of the differences in masks and what would best suit you during this pandemic. Now, it is more important than ever for us to stay educated on these matters. Regardless of the mask you choose, it is extremely important that you wear one while out in public during this time as they can dramatically help to mitigate the spread of the virus.
Above all else, we hope you stay safe and continue to take appropriate measures to protect yourself and those around you.
Together, we will get through this.