New city and countywide mandates require many of us to wear masks in public, but researchers said it’s important to treat them like a biohazard.
Professor and Department Chair of Community, Environment and Policy at the University of Arizona Public Health College Kelly Reynolds said, while in public, the virus can get on the front of the mask and live on it for several days.
“By design, the mask could really be contaminated, so we recommend that people think of their masks as a biohazard,” Reynolds said.
The virus can live on surgical and N95 masks for up to seven days. Normally, they would be thrown out after one use, but a shortage in Personal Protective Equipment prevents that.
“You can’t just throw them in the washer machine — that would destroy their fibers,” Reynolds said. “For those (N95 and surgical), the best recommendation is to let the natural course of the virus dying off to run its course, so the recommendation is to take those masks and put them in a paper bag and wait seven days before you use them again.”
More commonly though, she said people in the community are wearing homemade, cloth masks, which can hold the virus for two days.
She said one advantage in Arizona to clean those is the summer heat, which means leaving it in a car for at least 20 minutes.
“When it is 110 outside, in no time our cars will get really hot, so the coronavirus can survive in our cars for 20 minutes in up to 130 degrees and five minutes at 150 degrees, so that can be a very effective tool for decontaminating our masks,” Reynolds said.
She recommends removing the masks from the elastic around the ears using your pinkies. She said this is because those are the fingers you’re least likely to use touching your face.
After that, make sure to put it in a central location and sanitize or wash your hands.
“If you think about why we are wearing the mask in the first place, it is to prevent our exposure,” Reynolds said. “Making sure you know how to properly care for your mask, and how to properly take it off and put it on is really important to reduce your risk of exposure.”