N95 masks have officially become the gold standard when it comes to protecting yourself against COVID-19. They block more viral particulates compared to their cloth or surgical cousins, making them the best choice for when you're indoors in crowded areas or around people who are at higher risk for severe illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Only problem is? They're expensive — and because we all need them, you'll want to eke the maximum amount of use out of each one, whether you're getting free masks from the government or stocking up on your own. That means re-wearing your mask multiple times before throwing it out.
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And in fact, reusing your N95 masks is totally OK, experts say. The key is giving your mask time to air out in between uses and not wearing it for so long that it starts to become less effective.
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How Many Times Can You Re-wear an N95 Mask?
N95 masks can be re-worn up to five times, according to the CDC. However, some experts say this number can vary depending on where your mask is worn and how long you keep it on. (You also don't want to wear the same mask for five days in a row. More on that in a bit.)
"If you're wearing the mask for only brief periods, like going to the grocery store or running an errand, you could probably stretch the longevity of the mask longer," explains Syra Madad, DHSc, MCP, infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the NYC Health + Hospitals. "If you're indoors for a long period of time, like at school or work, you'd want to replace the mask sooner due to general wear and tear."
Masks start to lose their effectiveness over time. The elastic straps stretch and weaken with each wear, eventually making it harder for the mask to create a tight seal around a person's face and allowing more unfiltered air to pass through, per the CDC. And regardless of the number of wears, you should throw out your mask if you notice it isn't fitting as snugly or the straps or nose piece have been damaged.
The same toss-it rule applies if your mask becomes dirty, even if you've only worn it once or twice. "The N95 should be thrown out if you cough, sneeze or it has become soiled," says Nikhil Bhayani, MD, infectious disease specialist at Texas Health Resources in Bedford, Texas.
How to Clean an N95 Mask
It's important to de-germ your N95 mask in between wears. The good news is it's very, very easy to do.
After using your mask, you should remove it and store it in a paper bag for five days before wearing it again, the CDC recommends. "This will allow enough time for any sort of virus particulates or remnants to die off," Dr. Bhayani says. After the five-day airing-out period, the mask is ready to be worn again.
What you shouldn't do? Wash your mask with soap and water. Though a quick rinse in hot, sudsy water might seem like an effective way to get rid of gunk, it can actually do more harm than good. Washing N95 masks "can disrupt the mask's electrostatic charge and reduce the mask's filtration effectiveness," Dr. Madad explains.
How to Store N95 Masks When You're Not Using Them
It's a good idea to have three to five N95 masks in your rotation at any given time, depending on how often you typically need to mask up. You should keep each one you aren't wearing in a separate paper bag while it's airing out, recommend Drs. Bhayani and Madad. You can number the bag or the mask (on the outside) to keep track of each mask's place in your rotation, recommends a May 2020 paper in the Journal of Emergency Medicine.
When you're ready to wear the mask again (or put a mask on for the first time), wash your hands or use an alcohol-based sanitizer first, Dr. Bhayani recommends.
Read more stories to help you navigate the pandemic:
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Types of Masks and Respirators"
- Journal of Emergency Medicine: "N95 Respirator Cleaning and Reuse Methods Proposed by the Inventor of the N95 Mask Material"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Implementing Filtering Facepiece Respirator (FFR) Reuse, Including Reuse after Decontamination, When There Are Known Shortages of N95 Respirators"
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