The weather is heating up, everyone is sweating more, and archipelagos of pimples are cropping up beneath the masks on our greasy little faces. Maybe, as you're putting on your face covering for what feels like the millionth time, you’re thinking, When can I stop wearing this thing and resume grinning at people I pass on the sidewalk, instead of just forcefully squinting my eyes, as if in a smile? The unfortunate answer is, probably not for a very long time.
The CDC notes that wearing a mask is a precaution to keep from spreading virus-carrying respiratory droplets to others. The idea is that if everyone wears a mask, the likelihood of the droplets getting sprayed around is much less. Each new study only provides further evidence that wearing face masks is a crucial component in slowing the spread of coronavirus. One recent paper, published by the Institute of Labor Economics in Germany, showed that masks may reduce the spread of COVID-19 by 40 percent. This is great, because wearing a mask is an easy thing to do, even if it’s a little irritating. But as we accept masks as just another thing that must be worn in public, I have to wonder: What’s the appropriate number to own—and how often should they be cleaned?
Personally, I have one mask, which I bought in March from a friend on Instagram. I wash it when it “smells dirty” by swirling it around in a takeout soup container filled with hot water and laundry detergent, then hang drying it on my fire escape/backyard fence. The CDC has official guidelines on washing cloth face coverings that I’m not properly following. According to the CDC, a reusable cloth mask (versus the blue surgical masks and N95s, which are disposable and should be saved for healthcare workers) are to be washed on the warmest appropriate setting in a washing machine, or hand-washed in a solution of bleach and water. The CDC also says a mask should be “washed after each use.” What constitutes a “use” isn’t defined, and so how often one should perform the chore of cleaning their mask(s) is a bit of a gray area.
Does a mask need to be squeaky clean in order to prevent the spread of droplets? It probably helps, yes, especially considering that your mask may catch some virus droplets out in public, and putting that up to your face again is risky, and frankly, gross. But “personal hygiene” is “personal.” To get a sense of how people are instituting the more nuanced rules of mask-wearing, VICE ran a Twitter poll.
The results of the poll suggest that most people appear to be following the CDC’s rules pretty well—even though results were anonymous, which feels encouraging. Owning multiple masks cuts down on the frequency of washing, and also, it’s cool to mix things up a little bit, especially with something that covers about 40 percent of the face. Few people seem to be submitting themselves to the voluntary torture of washing their one mask every single day. But about a fifth of the poll respondents have seemingly adopted a laissez-faire approach to mask wearing, and wash the single mask they own whenever they decide it feels right.
These numbers are interesting—illuminating, even—but, as they say, numbers only tell part of the story. To learn more about how, exactly, people are approaching their mask hygiene, I turned to members of VICE's staff, under the promise of anonymity.
Interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
“I have two masks—one shitty one (like a disposable, $2 one) and an N95 one. I wear the disposable mask on my infrequent runs to stores—for five minutes at a coffee shop or 15 minutes at a Target or CVS or something. I’ve worn it maybe seven times. I generally go for the disposable one over the N95 because the N95 is mad uncomfortable. And now that I am thinking and talking about it, I realize that’s bad.” — Anonymous VICE writer A
“I have one mask that I probably wash every week and a half, but I'm looking to add another one to the collection with fashion more firmly in mind lol.” — Anonymous VICE writer B
“I bought a 20-pack from a beauty store, and also some scrunchies. They are all paper masks. The cloth ones are too hot. I have a fashion mask that has the Maryland flag on it that I wear for mirror selfies. I re-wear the paper masks one million times. I have them in a desk drawer, and when I take them off I put them in my pocket or on a table. When I leave the house, I grab whichever one I can find. I will never wash or throw them away. I assume I will naturally lose them at some point.
Please print this: One thing about germs is that they are just my germs being breathed into the mask over and over again. Why wash them? I see no point. Epidemiologists agree; you cant get sick from your own germs [Ed. note: epidemiologists do not agree with this] I feel like the natural attrition rate ends up being fine. Another fact few people know: If you let masks sit out for a little while, the germs have a war between each other and there are no survivors. So the mask cleans itself. [Ed. note: this also is not true.]” — Anonymous VICE editor C
“I have like 8–10 masks, all are cloth/reusable, and I only wear them once before I wash them. Sometimes I just use hand or bar soap that I run into them and wash out in the sink in hot water, but if I’m already doing laundry that day, I’ll use detergent. Once I’ve worn one I hang it on a knob in my bathroom. Then when there are a bunch of them I wash them together in the sink with soap and let them hang dry.” — Anonymous VICE editor D
“I am a very committed mask-washer. My husband and I share six masks, and we boil them in a pot on the stove after nearly every use. (He is a bit of a prepper type, tbh, and I probably would not be doing this if he weren't so into it) But if I wear it just in my building elevator for like a trip to the basement, I don't boil. don't tell my husband though. I probably boil masks once a day, maybe once every couple days.” — Anonymous VICE editor E
“I have three and I haven’t washed them but I barely leave the apartment. I also recently wore the same pajama pants for like five days in a row. So.” — Anonymous VICE editor F
“I have one mask. My grandma made it with pretty high quality Japanese fabric, hoping it will last through the pandemic. I wear it exclusively, and I wash it every time I do laundry which is ~once a week.” — Anonymous VICE writer G
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