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Face masks and face covers are crucial in the ongoing battle against the new coronavirus infection COVID-19. In conjunction with other nonpharmaceutical interventions like social distancing, they can prevent droplet transmission, or the spread of the disease through droplets released when the patient coughs, sneezes, talks or even exhales, to an extent.

With no immediate success in sight in terms of a vaccine or cure for COVID-19, face masks, along with other protective gear, are our best bet for controlling the further spread of this virus. (Read more: How useful are face masks against COVID-19?)

However, unless we are careful, there could be a downside to using masks. Experts have warned that contaminated masks could potentially spread the disease. It is for this reason that it becomes extremely important to not just use face masks/covers but also to clean and safely disinfect them on a regular basis. (Disinfect them before discarding as well, to avoid spreading germs to others.)

Here is how you can disinfect different kinds of reusable masks to minimise the risk of transmission through them:

  1. How to disinfect N-95 and surgical masks
  2. How to sanitize face covers made with cloth
  3. How to sanitize face shields
  4. Takeaways for disinfecting face covers and face masks

Medical grade masks such as surgical masks and N-95 masks should ideally not be reused—normally, doctors take a new disposable mask each time they take their mask off; they also discard their mask after every eight hours when they are working longer shifts.

However, in extraordinary times like the COVID-19 pandemic, when there can be a temporary shortage of masks and protective gear in local hospitals or local areas, N-95 masks may be repurposed if they are not torn, dirty or saturated with moisture.

But before they reused, they must be disinfected using vapour-phase hydrogen peroxide or by UVC (ultraviolet C light) germicidal irradiation, which is generally available in big hospitals and some clinics.

There isn’t much data available on how to go about the sanitization of three-layer surgical masks. If the mask appears clean, store it in a paper bag or breathable container in-between consecutive uses.

Cloth masks, bandanas, scarves and neck gaiters are all types of masks that can easily be cleaned and reused. It is recommended that cloth masks of all kinds be cleaned after each use. This can be done both through handwashing or in a machine, as per personal preference.

To disinfect the mask properly, soak it in a bleach solution—made with household bleach and water—for around 5 minutes. After this, rinse thoroughly in running water and leave it to air dry.

In case you are opting for machine-wash, it is important to toss the mask directly into the washing machine—hold the mask from the strings, without touching any other surfaces. Wash your hands immediately afterwards. Put in your regular laundry detergent along with bleach and use the warmest water recommended according to the fabric type. Later, dry on high heat until it’s completely dry.

No matter which method you opt for, it is important to make sure that you remove the mask carefully without touching your eyes, nose, etc. Wash your hands thoroughly after removing it and make sure the mask doesn’t touch any other surfaces to minimize the risk of further contamination.

Ironing cloth masks for at least five minutes and sun-drying them also help to disinfect them. Additionally, you can also use dry heat from an electric cooker like a rice cooker to disinfect the masks (make sure to line the inside of the cooker with a thick towel first, to avoid burning the face covers).

You might also be interested in: Best cleaners and disinfectants for your home

Face shields are an entire category in themselves. This is a protective gear that is used in addition to the mask, to provide protection to the eyes. Since the face shield is open on the sides, it does not provide protection against sneezes and coughs behind you.

However, face shields can be reused after proper sanitization. First, wipe down the inside using a clean cloth that has been saturated with a neutral detergent solution or with a cleansing wipe. The outside should be wiped using a disinfectant wipe. After this, wipe both the sides with clean water to remove the residue and leave it to air dry. Do not forget to wash your hands once this is done. (Read more: Right way to wash your hands and avoid COVID-19 infection)

Face masks help in reducing the spread of COVID-19 by providing a barrier that catches the respiratory droplets that are released when people cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets are what carry the virus from person to person.

Masks should either be cleaned or discarded after use. Thoroughly washing with bleach and detergent is a good way to sanitize cloth masks. Medical grade masks aren’t designed to be reused and should be discarded unless one has access to the proper equipment to disinfect them. Face shields, used for added protection, should also be cleaned between uses.

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