Covid-19 has led to a new surge in interest in how to clean and disinfect masks. Google searches for “wash N95 mask” and “wash KN95 mask” have sky-rocketed.
Yet data-backed answers seem to be in short supply. The standard guidelines say to throw masks out and use new ones. I.e. – don’t wash your mask.
But the standard guidelines aren’t helpful when surgical masks and N95 masks are in short supply. In this post we look at the right way to wash, clean and disinfect a mask.
Washing N95/KN95 Masks: Reduces Effectiveness
The simplest suggestion we’ve seen is to wash masks with soap and water. However, test data shows washing N95/KN95 masks with water reduces their filtration effectiveness.
Using Alcohol to Disinfect Masks: Reduces Effectiveness
Maybe alcohol disinfection is better than washing with water because it doesn’t require rubbing the mask? Unfortunately, tests found that dipping N95 masks in rubbing alcohol reduced particle capture by 37%.
If washing with water and alcohol doesn’t work, then we’re in need of a more effective way to clean a mask, without harming performance.
A Reliable Way to Disinfect N95/KN95 Masks
In times of panic, we often want to take action, yet one of the simplest ways to disinfect masks is to do nothing! Simply allowing masks to dry will kill viruses.
But the critical question healthcare workers need to know is how long we need to dry masks before they’re safe. The question of viability is particularly important because many studies measure whether viruses are “detectable.”
Viruses can remain detectable for scarily long periods of time, which has led to incredible-sounding headlines about how long viruses last. But “detectable” is very different from “viable.” Viable is more important for mask users because “viable” means it’s still able to infect someone.
How Long Will COVID and Viruses Live on a Mask?
The CDC states the risk of COVID-19 transmission is minor after 72 hours of the virus being on a surface. Over 99% of COVID virus particles die within that time. Therefore one of the safest ways to sanitize a mask from COVID-19 is to dry the mask for 72 hours in a COVID-free environment.
Will Drying Masks Work for COVID-19?
The study above is for H1N1 (influenza A), not the coronavirus. The researchers said results should be similar for other influenza A viruses, but they stopped short of saying they’re valid for all flu viruses.
There’s little data on how long COVID-19 remains viable. The CDC says that the coronavirus may remain viable for hours to even days. A recent study (that has not been formally published yet) tested the viability of the new coronavirus (HCoV-19) and the “old” coronavirus, SARS (SARS-CoV-1). They sprayed the two viruses on plastic, stainless steel, copper, and cardboard.
They did not test cloth, but the closest material to a mask was cardboard. It took 48 hours for COVID-19 to be completely non-viable on cardboard. On stainless steel, a tiny amount of viable coronavirus remained at 72 hours, That’s 7 times longer than the earlier study found for H1N1.
Based on these two studies, leaving a mask to dry for 48 hours should be enough to kill COVID-19, SARS, and influenza A viruses. Leaving masks for 72 hours would be even more conservative.
However, it is important to remember that virus survival time is not a universal constant like the speed of light. Several factors will influence how long viruses survive:
- Viruses survive longer at lower temperatures. For example, one study found that viruses died faster at 20C than 4C, and faster still at 40C.
- Studies have found that viruses survive much longer on wet materials than dry materials.
Drying out a mask is more likely to kill the virus. One US hospital is telling its nurses to keep their masks in plastic bags, yet this would prevent the mask from drying and thus allow the virus to live longer.
Heating Masks for 60 mins at 70°C (158°F)
If in a rush to disinfect a mask, heating masks in the oven at 70°C (158°F) can be a decent option. Research shows that as long as the masks are 6 inches from the burner, there is minimal reduction in mask effectiveness. Even after heating for 24 hours, the masks retained 98.5% effectiveness.
Bottom Line: How to Disinfect N95/KN95 Masks
Leaving masks out to dry should disinfect them from COVID-19, SARS, and influenza A in under 48 hours. 72 hours would be even more conservative.
Along with wearing masks, air purifiers with HEPA filters are also one of the best ways to stay safe from a variety of pollutants in our air including viruses and dangerous PM2.5. A recent CDC study confirmed significantly lower COVID-19 infection rates in schools that used HEPA air purifiers. HEPA filters can significantly lower the risk of a variety of deadly diseases including diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and high blood pressure.
Read More: Four Steps to Choosing the Best Air Purifier
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