In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the wearing of masks is a simple, effective way to prevent the spread of disease. For masks to be effective, we need to wear them correctly, which raises practical questions about whether our masks can be reused. We know that cloth masks are designed to be reused, which involves taking off the mask, washing it, storing it and donning it again, but how about surgical masks?
Are Surgical Masks Designed to Be Reused?
Surgical masks are designed for one-time use, and are meant to be disposed of properly after each use. Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Public Health England make an exception for healthcare workers in situations where surgical masks are in critically short supply, stating that masks can be used for extended periods or reused. The CDC recommends that surgical masks only be reused as a last resort.
What Happens to the Properties of Surgical Masks After Many Uses?
Surgical masks have specific properties that block virus particles from passing through them. These properties include the droplet filtration (ability to block droplets) and fluid resistance. Surgical masks are also breathable so that they can be worn comfortably for several hours at a time. The protective and breathable properties can be attributed to the three to four layers of fine fibers that make up the mask.
However, when a surgical mask is reused many times, the fine fibers may start to degrade, which could affect the protective properties of the mask. Since surgical masks were designed for one-time use, the effects of reusing them have not been well studied.
Some people clean their surgical masks between uses with detergent, bleach or alcohol (e.g., by spraying the mask with an alcohol-containing sanitizer). Studies show these cleaning methods may not be effective and they could interfere with the electrostatic properties of the surgical mask, which helps it to trap virus particles.
When Should You Not Reuse Your Surgical Masks?
In general, surgical masks should not be reused. In exceptional situations where reuse is allowed, you should still not reuse any mask that is soiled, wet, damaged or difficult to breathe through. Such masks have to be disposed of immediately because they may no longer act as effective barriers to the virus.
In addition, if you touch an object that may be contaminated, then touch your mask, you will need to discard the mask. Also, masks that fasten with ties are not easily untied and retied, and should not be reused.
Most public health organizations, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), the CDC and Public Health England, generally recommend that everyone avoid reusing surgical masks. These masks have been designed for one-time use, and reuse and cleaning could damage their protective properties. In exceptional cases, such as for healthcare workers faced with a critically low supply of masks, some guidelines allow for reuse of surgical masks. In these situations, masks that are soiled, wet, damaged or difficult to breathe through should not be reused.
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