Rule Breakers

What Happens When You Don't Wash Your Face Mask, According To An MD

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One of the biggest changes to everyday life in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic has been the omnipresence of face masks. Whether they're disposable paper ones or fabric masks designed for multiple uses, millions have adapted to wearing them while out and about. Reusable masks are popular and cost-effective; maybe you got one off Etsy, or dusted off your sewing machine and made some for yourself. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) recommend that you clean masks after every use, which can seem like a lot of effort — but experts explain that if you don't wash your mask, it's kind of gross for your face and for those around you.

"It’s imperative to properly clean your mask after each daily use or if soiled during the course of the day, in order to mitigate against spreading the disease to others," Dr. Robert Quigley M.D., senior vice president and regional medical director of medical and security services company International SOS, tells Bustle.

When you wear a mask, it's as much for the protection of others as it is for your own health. They're designed to limit coronavirus in two ways: by reducing your exposure to other people's germs and preventing you from spreading it if you happen to have it. Dr. Quigley points out that COVID-19 cases are rising as states reopen, in part because people aren't socially distancing any more. When those around you aren't taking public health precautions seriously, it's more crucial than ever to wash your mask.

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There's also maskne, the new term for acne caused by frequent mask-wearing. Masks form a sealed area for moisture and sweat, and if you don't clean them every time, they become havens for germ build-up, which can then clog the pores where your mask makes contact with your skin. “Some of the more heavy duty masks are abrasive on the skin causing irritation from the rough texture," Dr. Ellen Marmur, a New York-based dermatologist and founder of MMSkincare, previously told Bustle. "Softer masks can hold bacteria and can cause dryness. Reusable masks can have residue from laundry detergent that can also cause breakouts.”

It's hard to know exactly how long it might live on soft, porous surfaces, but a study published in New England Journal of Medicine in April suggested that the coronavirus could survive for up to 72 hours on plastic and stainless steel surfaces. Luckily, soap and detergent are coronavirus's Kryptonite. "There has been no evidence to support that the virus can live post-proper cleaning, and the virus is very vulnerable to any soap," Dr. Quigley says. "If you’re wearing a reusable cloth mask, be sure to remove and put the mask into the washing machine for a full cycle (at 170 degrees Fahrenheit) immediately upon returning to your home," Dr. Quigley says. "If a washing machine is not available, the alternative would be to thoroughly wash the mask using warm water and hand soap." The CDC recommends hand-washing with a mixture of bleach and room temperature water. Dr. Quigley says you should also wash your hands after removing your mask.

Reusable masks can only be effective if the fabric keeps a tight weave, though. "Check in on the physical state of the mask itself to ensure it's not deteriorating in any way from overuse, as deterioration of the material can negatively impact its efficacy in the spread of the virus to others," Dr. Quigley says. If it's tearing, splitting, or getting thin and weak, you should wash it one last time, throw it away, and get a new one.

Experts:

Dr. Robert Quigley M.D.

Dr. Ellen Marmur, dermatologist and founder of MMSkincare

Studies cited:

van Doremalen, N., Bushmaker, T., Morris, D. H., Holbrook, M. G., Gamble, A., Williamson, B. N., Tamin, A., Harcourt, J. L., Thornburg, N. J., Gerber, S. I., Lloyd-Smith, J. O., de Wit, E., & Munster, V. J. (2020). Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1. The New England journal of medicine, 382(16), 1564–1567. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMc2004973