With more businesses now returning to the office, the use — and especially the reuse — of N95 and KN95 masks is set to be a popular choice for many.
Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its mask guidance to recommend the use of these respirators after previous supply shortages recovered. The government also began distributing free N95 masks along with free at-home tests to combat the omicron surge.
Masking is a critical public health tool for preventing spread of the coronavirus, and while all masks and respirators provide some level of protection, properly fitting respirators provide the highest level of protection, the CDC said. The center recently released a new study that found respirators are significantly more effective than cloth or surgical masks.
There is no time limit to wearing a respirator, says N95 manufacturer 3M. They are designed for multiple uses and can be worn until they are dirty, damaged or difficult to breathe through.
In fact, the N95/KN95 respirator is more likely to be physically damaged or worn out before it needs to be replaced because of a COVID-19 exposure, said Marisa Baker, assistant professor at the University of Washington’s Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences.
“You’ll need to toss it because the strap broke, or it got wet in the rain, well before it would be overloaded and lose its filtration efficiency,” Baker said. She added that this does not apply to respirator use aimed at protecting against general air pollution, including wildfire smoke or dust in the air.
These respirators are designed to both filter particles and seal the face. To be effective, they must be worn and fitted correctly. A better seal leads to more filtration of the air you breathe in. If a respirator is not sealed well, airborne hazards may enter through gaps.
To help protect the condition of respirators to function correctly, it’s important to store them well. Here’s what you can do to maximize the use and reuse of your N95 or KN95.
Rotate between masks
Baker recommends rotating through different masks during the week, if you can. If you own two masks, rotate their use daily. At the end of two or three weeks, toss them out and start over with two fresh masks.
If you are wearing a mask every day for in-person work, trade them out at the end of two weeks so each is worn for about 40 hours total, she said.
If you are wearing a mask fairly infrequently to run errands, pick up children from school, or to meet a friend for a walk, you can go three weeks before needing to think about changing them out. If you only have one mask, it is fine to reuse this mask for a week or so, as long as it is kept clean and dry during times it is not in use.
When the straps feel stretched out or the mask is visibly dirty, torn or wet, it’s time to discard it.
Store masks in a clean, dry spot
Until needed, store your masks indoors in their original packaging, in a place where they will not be crushed or distorted.
Though some experts suggest resting the masks in separately marked paper bags for several days to render any virus inactive, Baker says this isn’t necessary.
In general, she said, storing your N95 or KN95 in a dry and clean location like inside a paper bag, a dedicated pocket in a clean, breathable bag or hanging on a coat hook, should work just fine.
“I hang my masks on a dedicated hook on my coat rack — my husband, son, and I have our own hooks to keep them separate,” Baker said.
Be careful not to crush, crumple or fold your respirator. Do not stuff it into a pocket.
For those who work in settings of possible high exposure, Baker recommended storing the masks outside of the high-risk environment and changing them more frequently for better protection.
Don’t disinfect your mask
Do not try to clean or disinfect N95 or KN95 respirators, because you will damage them. The electrostatic properties that an N95 uses to stop viral particles from getting into your nose or mouth are rendered ineffective with water or other cleaning products.
Manufacturer 3M also cautions against putting respirators in ovens or spraying them with disinfectant.
“If someone has attempted to do this, then they should toss that mask and start with a fresh N95, assuming it is no longer going to provide optimal filtration,” Baker said.
- Inspect your mask before each use. Always wash your hands before and after handling.
- These masks offer a better fit and more protection when worn on clean shaven faces. The mask should touch skin if possible. Beards, long mustaches and stubble may prevent a tight fit and cause air leaks into the respirator.
- Press down and secure the metal bar at the top of N95/KN95 respirators on your nose bridge to improve the fit and efficacy of the mask.
- An N95 mask with an exhalation valve may keep you safe, but it won’t keep people around you safe from what you may breathe out, Baker says. If you are diagnosed with COVID, these should not be worn for stopping the spread of the virus.