Cloth masks are not enough. To best protect yourself against omicron, experts suggest you may need a respirator mask (think KN95 masks and N95 masks) or a surgical mask. As SELF has previously reported, the cloth mask’s low-tech material isn’t as good at blocking small aerosol particles – respirators and surgical masks are made with at least one layer of polypolypropylene, which filters electrostatically those tiny particles suspended in the air. Combined with a looser fit, cloth masks are much less effective at preventing omicron transmission. They are about 25% effective at blocking the transmission of virus-carrying particles overall – which, it should be noted, is better than nothing – but far inferior to respirators, which are up to 95% effective at block the transmission of viruses. transporting particles, according to the Centers for Disaster Control and Prevention (CDC).
However, getting your hands on disposable respirators is getting harder. So how long can you safely wear an N95 or KN95 mask before throwing it away?
According to guidelines for CDC-issued healthcare facilities, N95 masks should ideally only be used once and (ideally) up to five times. The more you reuse your mask, the more its fit and filtration performance – the keys to making these masks a strong defense against airborne transmission of the omicron variant – is compromised.
Since there’s no end to the pandemic in sight, you should have potentially hundreds of masks on hand if you only used each one once. Which seems almost impossible. While the CDC officially declared the shortage of N95 masks for healthcare facilities in the United States in May 2021, for many people in this country, « a mask is not always affordable or convenient to obtain, » President Biden said in a speech Thursday , through CNN. Fortunately, getting respirator masks may soon be easier — in his remarks, Biden announced a plan to start handing out free masks to people in America, details of which will be announced next week.
In the meantime, health experts have some tips for safely extending the life of your respirator mask. One strategy is to rotate your masks, storing them in a clean, dry paper bag between uses, depending on the North Dakota Department of Health. So let’s say you have seven masks, you would wear one on Monday, one on Tuesday and so on. “If you rotate your masks, wash your hands and store them well, you can use them from five to a little more,” Joseph Gastaldo, MD, an infectious disease physician with OhioHealth, said USA today. To ensure that any virus particles on the mask die between uses, ensure that they are stored in the paper bag for at least five days, in accordance with CDC.
Another tip? Put your mask in the oven. Researchers from Columbia university in New York found that heating an N95 mask can kill lingering virus particles. To do this safely, they recommend placing your mask in a paper bag and then placing it in an oven-safe bag (like the one you would use for a turkey). Place the double-bag mask in the oven at 175 degrees Fahrenheit for 45 minutes, then let it cool. The federal government, on the other hand, recommended the use of moist heat, like the one used in a pressure cooker or InstantPot, to sanitize your N95.
If you reuse your N95 or KN95 mask, it is important to ensure that it continues to fit correctly, which means that it is snug enough to create a seal with your face. If the elastic straps start to stretch, or the nose bridge breaks or loses its shape, it’s time to replace it.