While people in East Asia and other parts of the world have dealt with wearing face masks during other pandemics, during flu season, and even to cut the personal impact of pollution for years, in America, wearing fabric masks during the Covid pandemic has been a totally new experience for most of us.
Unless you work in healthcare and are required to wear disposable medical masks, chances are you’re wearing reusable fabric masks. Since mask-wearing is so new, we’re all trying to figure out how to wear fabric masks during the day to give ourselves the most protection with the least discomfort — while looking as good as we can with a piece of fabric covering half of our face.
After investing in fabric masks, we’re also learning how to keep them clean enough to offer protection while helping them last as long as possible. Since I make and sell fashion masks made from designer fabrics that are meant to be part of your wardrobe, to help you get the most value out of your fabric masks, I did some research and will summarize it below.
To start with, when it comes to caring for masks, the super-sanitizing, hot water bath, bleach solution, high heat dryer method that everyone from the Centers for Disease Control to the Mayo Clinic recommends might just distort, disintegrate, or tear your fabric mask to shreds if its colors or fibers are not equipped for medical grade sanitization.
I’m not suggesting that you ignore their advice. I’m only being realistic about what various different fiber content and color pattern fabric masks can take before disintegrating. To that end, I’d like to offer some alternative approaches that can keep your mask clean based on the amount of your use.
How Many Masks Should I Have?
There are so many different situations that people are facing right now as far as how often they need to be somewhere in a mask. Some folks rarely need to leave home, while others, even when they’re not on the front lines in medical settings, still have to be at work, possibly wearing a mask for extended periods or even for a full 8 hour shift or longer.
If you only leave home for the occasional errand or short appointment, or the rare outdoor dining experience, you can likely get away with rotating just a few masks.
If you have to work outside the home for extended hours while interfacing with others, you probably need 8 masks, if not more.
According to the Mayo Clinic, masks actually need to be changed every 30 minutes when you’re in close contact with others because they begin to get moist from your nose and mouth which makes them less effective at blocking droplets that may contain coronavirus. And when you switch masks out, they need to be kept in a clean place that’s not likely to promote the growth of any mold from that moisture. So managing your masks effectively becomes a real issue if you’re in a high interfacing job.
If you expect one mask to be worn every day for eight hours, wash it at night, and wear it the next day, it simply won’t last long. Few clothing items or textiles are equipped to be worn and washed at that rate and survive. Fibers and textiles break down from use and they break down even more from washing.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you wouldn’t wear one pair of underwear every day and wash it every night in order to wear it again the next day, and every day after that, then you shouldn’t be expecting that out of your mask, either.
Taking Care of Your Masks
By now you’ve probably asked yourself when you’re about to head out somewhere, “Where did I put my mask?”
You might find it stuffed in your jeans pocket, at the bottom of your purse, kicking around the dirty dishes of your lunchbox, or in your jacket pocket. After all, when you’re not wearing it, it has to go somewhere.
None of those are the best approach, however, since the mask already picks up so many oils and moisture from your face, and dirt from your touching it constantly (even though you’re not supposed to touch it). The last thing the mask needs is more ambient dirt, grease, dust, and germs from the places we stash them in without thinking about the cleanliness.
My advice for workers who need to juggle multiple masks in a day is to designate one or more clean, breathable fabric bag(s) as a mask storage place. Use one bag for clean masks, one bag for masks being rotated out, and one bag for dirty masks that need to be washed.
For everyone the advice on fabric masks seems to be that they can be worn the equivalent of 8 hours before being washed. That means if you only wore a mask for a half hour before rotating it out, you don’t likely need to give that mask a full washing yet. Obviously managing all this can seem like a real pain but at the same time pandemics don’t last forever. Mask care is a safety measure for a limited period of time.
As for washing the mask, following the CDC’s advice is good for fabric masks that can take that. In that case, I’d recommend all-natural fiber masks in white or plain linen color so that they can take the impact of bleach. Then they’re going to have to thoroughly rinsed so that you’re not breathing in the bleach scent after the masks are dry.
So-called “color-safe bleach” is not reputed to kill germs, so it’s not going to help with medical-grade sanitization advice. The real issue is looking at how often you wear your mask, what it is made of, and what it can take in terms of frequent washings.
For fashionable masks bought to wear with nice clothes or special occasions and for limited periods of time, you’ll need to be sure that the fabric can take high-impact washing and drying. Many fabrics are not intended for frequent washing, especially in a washing machine. Fine fabrics, as in the designer decorator and rare textiles that I use to make my fashion masks, need to be washed very delicately, preferably by hand and without heaving or wringing, and then hung to air dry. Both washing machines and dryers take a heavy toll on decorator textiles and will greatly shorten the lifespan of your mask.
How Long Will My Mask Last?
Again, if you’re expecting one mask to do the work of 50 masks, there’s a problem. No garment can take that much high impact use (directly on your nose and mouth, touched by your hands, stuffed into pockets) without the fibers and designs breaking down quickly.
The best advice for longevity is to have as many masks OR MORE than you have underwear, and to rotate them out even more often!
Save your high-end masks for the in-person but socially distanced business meeting, coffee gathering or nice dinner out where you really want to look good.
For ordinary trips to the grocery store or heavy use all day at work, use cheaper fabric masks that you don’t mind going through quickly or even occasionally consider disposable paper masks, which are now provided free of charge by many employers as well as restaurants and retail stores (though Lady Virginia’s environmental and conservation values frown on anything disposable except in emergencies).
Like it or not, masks are here to stay for a while. It’s best to not try to get by on just one or even a few unless you almost never need to leave home. To that end, make sure you have a variety — multiples for every day and work use, and nicer ones for more fashionable events or settings.
Keep them clean, store them in a clean place, wash them thoroughly but gently. And when they wear out, just like any other personal product, be prepared to refresh your stash.
Stay safe and healthy!
— Lady Virginia