Protective face masks are largely one-size-fits-all. Too bad laundry protocols aren’t! These days, masks come in all kinds of shapes, colors, and fabrics, usually without a handy washing instructions tag. (Pro: No itchy cheeks. Con: What does it want???) White versus dark, silk, cotton, or spandex...it’s a lot to keep straight, especially if the only special treatment your regular laundry gets is a round trip ticket to the dry cleaner’s. Luckily, laundry experts Gwen Whiting and Lindsey Boyd have it all down to a science (they did co-found The Laundress, after all). Once you know what you’re dealing with, it’s a lot easier to follow guidelines from the CDC for proper mask hygiene, and ensure that anything you do in the laundry room today won’t cause your face to break out tomorrow. Let’s get to washing.
As this study in The Lancet Microbe notes, SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) is highly sensitive to heat. So soap and hot water is your best bet for thoroughly yet gently disinfecting your mask—the WHO recommends running your laundry machine between 140 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit for it to work.
But I can’t wash my mask in hot water!
You’re right—not all fabrics hold up well in such high temperatures. You should be fine washing stretchy materials like Lycra, spandex, and polyester in hot water. But for those who purchased silk masks in the hope of a more skin-friendly option, here’s a bitter pill to swallow: “Silk and chiffon will shrink significantly if you wash them in hot water or put them in the dryer,” says Whiting. And a shrunken silk mask won’t do much to protect your nose and mouth! To make hand-washing work, you’d need to add some kind of disinfectant as a pre-treatment, and both the bleach and non-bleach options are too harsh to use on silk anyway. So while these kinds of masks make a nice fashion statement, you’re better off sticking to cotton or linen and adhering to CDC recommended washing guidelines (wash after each wear).
By the way, you probably shouldn’t own just one mask. Considering how often they should be washed, you should factor how often you plan to do laundry and how often you’re going to leave your house into how many you own. For example: if you’re planning to go out five days a week and only do laundry once a week, you should technically have five clean masks on hand.
Eh, this sounds like a lot.
Maybe, but remember, there's a lot we still don't know about SARS-CoV-2. It's best to err on the side of caution—soap and water may be effective in killing the virus when it's on your hands, but studies haven't tested how that method performs on clothing. Though and scientists don't think coronavirus can live on porous surfaces for more than a few hours, the CDC and WHO still recommend washing clothing in hot temperatures or with bleach, just to be safe.
I have finicky skin! What can I use to wash my mask so my skin won’t react?
Since you’re washing in high temperatures, you’re OK choosing a gentle cleaning solution. “We’d recommend using a fragrance-free detergent, as fragrance can sometimes be a trigger for sensitive or reactive skin types,” explains Boyd. There are lots of fragrance-free options readily available at the drugstore or online—All Free Clear and Honest’s Baby Detergent both received a seal of acceptance from the National Eczema Society, which means they comply with its rigorous safety testing and ingredient standards. Dropp’s detergent pods are particularly good on delicate fabrics and natural fibers, Puracy’s is a good option if you know you’re allergic to sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium laureth sulfate, and Charlie’s Soap has the simplest ingredient list of the whole bunch (it’s mostly baking soda).
It’s also possible that you’re not sensitive to fragrance! If many of your skincare products are heavily fragranced, your skin might handle a fragranced detergent just fine. Maybe opt for something that you’ll enjoy smelling more than your own breath? You’ll still want to avoid the optical brighteners and dyes in many detergents—just because you’re not sensitive to one thing doesn’t mean your more delicate facial skin is immune to everything. If you notice irritation (redness, bumps, or breakouts) stop use and switch to something fragrance-free.
I got makeup all over my mask. How can I wash it out and prevent my mask from staining over time?
You can pre-treat with a gentle stain remover like this one from The Laundress, which doesn’t use bleach or dyes to brighten. Don’t want to buy something new? Try using baking soda and white vinegar on foundation stains, or rubbing alcohol on lipstick stains. (Though, is anyone really wearing lipstick under their masks?)
Well then, carry on!
OK, I have everything I need. How should I proceed?
If you share a laundry room with others, first wipe down the washing machine thoroughly with disinfectant. Then, either wear clean gloves while you’re washing your clothes, or wash your hands before and after handling anything.
Since masks can be pretty delicate, washing yours in a mesh lingerie bag with a zipper may help retain its shape and prevent straps from pulling or snagging (especially if your mask ties on with long strings). It’ll also make it easier to keep track of if you wash it with a larger load. If you’re concerned about an allergic reaction from your detergent, you can always run the rinse cycle a second time without soap. Not only will this help rinse away anything irritating that might have clung to fabric, but the extra hot water helps disinfect your mask, too.
Done! Now what?
After washing, disinfect your laundry basket, remove clothes with clean or gloved hands, and wait till you get back home to fold it all. Since all viruses were killed by the hot water, the CDC says your drying method doesn't really matter. “Air drying will protect elastic in the straps,” says Boyd, who emphasizes laying your masks on a clean, flat surface, preferably in some sunlight. Or, wipe down the dryer and go that route—as long as you’re laundering your mask frequently, you won’t lose points for laziness here.
Photo via ITG