The Real Reason You Shouldn't Reuse Your Disposable Face Mask

Some face masks are single-use for a reason. Here's why using them again could be dangerous.

Seeing people wear masks to protect themselves and others from coronavirus has gone from alarming to a surprisingly normal part of everyday life since the COVID-19 pandemic struck. However, when it comes to reducing your risk of contracting the virus or unwittingly infecting others, you may be making a crucial mistake on a daily basis: reusing your disposable mask.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended that folks wear cloth face coverings—which can be effectively cleaned with detergent and water—to help reduce person-to-person coronavirus transmission, experts say that reusing a disposable mask may actually do more harm than good.

"The risk of reusing your disposable face mask is simply contamination and cross-contamination," explains physician Enchanta Jenkins, MD. "If that mask has been contaminated by viruses or bacteria … then your face/hands will be contaminated; you also may inhale some particles of infection."

white man on subway train wearing disposable face mask

Since disposable masks can't be effectively cleaned with soap and water like their cloth counterparts—and since spraying disinfectants on them can cause both dermatological and respiratory issues—once the virus is on them, it's likely it will continue spreading to other surfaces, potentially causing infection, until it's swapped for a new one.

In fact, research suggests that the prolonged use of disposable masks even in otherwise sterile surgical settings can lead to cross-contamination. In a 2018 study published in the Journal of Orthopaedic Translation, the bacterial count on surgeons' disposable masks increased in direct proportion to the amount of time they were worn, with the study's researchers recommending that disposable surgical masks be changed frequently throughout the day.

For the best means of protection, Jenkins recommends leaving the surgical masks for frontline healthcare workers, who should change them after each patient encounter, while cloth masks and "frequent hand washing and physical distancing" are the best methods for laypeople who want to stem the virus' spread. And for more ways to protect yourself, make sure you avoid these 7 Things You Should Never Be Doing With Your Face Mask.

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Sarah Crow
Sarah Crow is a senior editor at Eat This, Not That!, where she focuses on celebrity news and health coverage. Read more
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