By now, it's a well-established fact that the simplest way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is to wear a face mask. Let's review: Face masks help contain the potentially virus-laden respiratory droplets we emit from our mouths and noses when we breathe, speak, laugh, sing, sneeze, burp, etc. Wearing one is just as much about preventing others from getting sick as it is about keeping healthy yourself.
That's among the most straightforward medical advice you'll ever receive but, as with everything coronavirus-related, some degree of confusion is part of the prescription. Take, for example, the recent criticism against neck gaiters as face masks, which many national publications including Gear Patrol covered before the story was walked back — yes, gaiters are most likely fine as face masks. Not to mention that the sheer number of face masks — there are cotton masks, neoprene masks, masks with vents, masks with filters, adjustable masks, size-specific masks, homemade masks, and on and on — makes it hard to know which is best. (Make sure it covers your nose and mouth, look for fabrics with a tight weave and avoid those with valves.)
Once you have one, then there's the matter of caring for and cleaning your mask.
Laundering your face mask is just as easy as washing your other wardrobe essentials — yes, face masks require the same care as t-shirts and socks. The CDC recommends washing your mask, if it is a reusable one, with the rest of your clothing and regular laundry detergent. If it has an included filter, take it out first. Stick to the care instructions that it came with, and use the hottest wash setting appropriate for the its fabric (high heat will sanitize your mask). Then, dry it on a high setting, too, or hang it in the sun.
Ready for the dose of confusion? If you're using a face mask made of technical fabrics, of which there are now many, these instructions may vary, but only slightly. Again, you should stick to the care instructions that come with the mask, but you should also consider the detergent that you're using. Some of these masks come with water-repellent finishes which can be damaged by regular laundry. Instead, use a product like Nikwax's Tech Wash.
After that, you can use another Nikwax product called TX Direct to revive that water-resistant factor or add it if it wasn't already there.
"Having masks that have that water repellency to them helps prevent more gross stuff from escaping your mask, but it also prevents your mask from wetting out like an old rain jacket might," notes Heidi Allen, Nikwax's vice president of marketing. Water repellency is one of the general standards by which medical-grade PPE (personal protective equipment) is deemed okay for reuse because it makes these items resistant to bodily fluids. If liquid does penetrate non-water-repellent fabric, it can act as a bridge, allowing viruses and bacteria to travel from the outside of a mask to the inside.
You don't need a face mask made of technical fabric to gain that extra water-repellent protection. Nikwax's Cotton Proof formula is a wash-in solution that adds water repellency to cotton, polycotton and canvas products. Allen notes that if you're planning to fluid-proof your face mask, you should first wash it with a technical detergent like Tech Wash because, again, household detergents can hamper the waterproofing process. She also states that Nikwax products weren't necessarily designed to wear directly on the face, but all of its chemistry is screened for safety. If people have high-level skin sensitivities, they should do a quick test before wearing a Nikwax-proofed mask for a 12-hour workday, for example. (You might apply the same rule for washing your mask in any detergent.)
Lastly, wash your mask as often as possible. The CDC recommends doing so after each use. Since face masks are going to be part of our daily attire for months to come, it's probably a good idea to buy a few more, make room in your sock drawer and wash them regularly.
The CDC updates its guidelines and recommendations on masks regularly. To read the latest guidelines, click here.