By now, we should all be used to wearing face masks whenever we go out. To help slow the spread of COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone over age 2 wear cloth masks in public settings and when around people outside of your household, especially when social distancing isn't possible. When you're living in such close quarters with your partner or family, it might seem harmless to share a common stockpile of masks — as long as you wash them between uses, of course. But experts advise against it, when at all possible.
"I think of masks like underwear — they are not things you want to share with people," Krutika Kuppalli, MD, assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Medical University of South Carolina and Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told POPSUGAR. "You are not just thinking about COVID-19 but other bacteria. Even if you are washing, they are not things you should be sharing with other people. Not just because of the risk of infections but also because you want to be wearing a mask that fits you best, and if you are sharing them with other people, they might get stretched out and not fit optimally." Dr. Kuppalli emphasized that it's important to wear masks that are snug and fit around your nose and face.
Allison Messina, MD, chief of infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital, agreed. "I would recommend that for safest use, people should wear their own masks to avoid any possibility of 'sharing' germs," Dr. Messina explained. To head off any possibility that you'll run out and have to borrow a mask from someone else in your household, she suggests keeping an ample supply: "It is best to have a few masks available, perhaps one for each day of the week so that it is easier to keep up with laundering them!"
As for keeping your face masks germ-free, both Dr. Kuppalli and Dr. Messina recommend washing them after each use and point to the CDC guidelines for cleaning instructions. If you're using a washing machine and dryer, use the highest temperature setting possible because "higher temperatures kill the virus more efficiently," Dr. Messina said. If you're washing your masks by hand, you should soak them in a bleach solution. Just be careful not to go overboard. "Do not use straight bleach on your mask," Dr. Messina warned. Instead, she advises people to follow the directions for preparing bleach solutions on the CDC website. Fully dry your mask, either in the dryer or by laying it flat and letting it air-dry (in direct sunlight, if possible).
Finally, no matter what mask you're wearing, try to avoid touching it with dirty hands. "I see so many people wear masks inappropriately and touch them without cleaning their hands — it kind of defeats the purpose," Dr. Kuppalli said. So keep your hands off your own and other people's masks, and stay safe out there.
POPSUGAR aims to give you the most accurate and up-to-date information about the coronavirus, but details and recommendations about this pandemic may have changed since publication. For the latest information on COVID-19, please check out resources from the WHO, CDC, and local public health departments.