How to Clean Your Filter Mask

PPE stands for Personal Protection Equipment. For most of us that includes face masks, safety glasses, and rubber gloves. Depending on how dangerous your job is it can be even more inclusive than this.

Generally, masks and gloves are meant to be disposable. The reason being is that you can recontaminate yourself by reusing these items.

For years, I've accumulated gloves and masks. I do a lot of wood refinishing and rubber gloves are essential. As for masks, although I hated wearing them, one horrific case of a bacterial infection earned while mucking out the chicken coop taught me the benefit of masks. You don't want to be sucking in that dust. Trust me on this.

To that end, I've thrown away more masks than I've ever worn. Masks deteriorate. The little foam nose pad and the rubber bands dry-rot away. Had I known we'd be hit by a coronavirus I would've saved the masks and rebuilt the nose pads and rubber bands. Alas, hindsight is 20/20.

I sent a box of masks to my sister who's in much more dire need than us. I scoured the house, work shop, and feed shed for the stray ones we had here or there. It was only a handful, but they'll do since we don't go out much. (Henceforth, the next time I clean the chicken coop, I'll have to dress up like a desperado in a face scarf.) Masks are too precious for mere cleaning jobs anymore.

In the meantime, we're caught in a conundrum. Do we toss masks or reuse them? Greg is the only one who's been out in over a month. Once for a pharmacy run, and the second for livestock feed. Since we have so few masks, I've had to get resourceful.

First, some basics.

You can't wash a filter mask. Well, you can, but you either inadvertently destroy it or render it useless. Here's why.

The good masks, those labeled N-95 or better are made with a fibrous material. If you flatten the fibers via washing, it loses its inherent ability to trap the tiny virus droplets. The cheaper ones aren't worth reusing, but if that's all you have, remember they have less effectiveness than the N-95s.

When Greg went out last, he was very careful only to handle the edges of the mask. As soon as he was back in the car, he removed it and put it in a plastic bag.

When he came home, I took it and hung it up on a clothesline under bright, hot sunshine. The sun is a marvelous disinfectant because of UV rays.

Nothing is perfect though, so you still take a chance reusing a mask.

Although I'm not an expert on PPE, I'll share the research I've uncovered on the best way to reuse your filter mask.
  • Use a fabric cover over your filter mask. A lot of people are making cloth masks. These are great as an extra layer of protection. Using an additional cloth mask over your PPE will protect the filter mask a little while longer.
  • Put your mask in rotation. The virus lives anywhere from 2-4 days on most surfaces. If you have to wear a mask try to have at least five masks that you can rotate so that your other masks are sitting it out and allowed to shed the virus.
  • Hang it outside in the sun.
  • Have only one designated shopper so fewer masks are required.
  • UV light. This isn't for us common folk, but it's out there as a conceivable option. I've read some hospitals use this kind of disinfection. I've not been able to find out how strong the light has to be, but the mask should sit under the light for at least 5 minutes. (Again, I've found no explicit parameters on light dosage or strength, so you'll need to decide this for yourself.) I only put this out there because UV lights are sold for fish tanks and as flashlights. Remember NEVER look at the UV light directly.
  • You can make your own filter mask. While many people are making cloth masks, it's important to know that most materials do not provide adequate protection against viruses. The best protection is actually the HEPA filters designed for air conditioners and vacuum cleaner bags. I found this one which is the material alone, and has a rating of MERV 13, the best for trapping viruses.
What you shouldn't do to a filter mask:
  • Don't wash filter masks. It mats down the fibers rendering it useless.
  • Don't spray it with bleach.
  • Don't use the mask if it's been soiled. 
  • Don't put it in a microwave. Many masks have metal in its nose piece to mold it on your face. Metal in microwaves go Flash-Boom-Fire.
  • Toss them after you use them. There's no point in saving them--if you can even get them off in one piece.
  • Don't bother wearing them to the grocery store. I've seen pictures of people doing this. Gloves are to prevent cross contamination. You're still touching the same stuff. Better to wash your hands and not touch your face.
  • One thing we do though is use them when pumping gasoline. It's a one-use job, but it saves you from using up your Purell.
If you must use a mask or gloves for work or shopping, treat them like gold. It might be a long time before "civilians" can buy them again.

Rotate your masks, wash your hands rather than use up disinfectant, and avoid contact with other people whenever possible.

We plan to go grocery shopping tomorrow for the first time in over a month.  A good neighbor has brought me lettuce and cat food, but this trip requires more specific items. I don't want to take advantage of my neighbor's kindness.

It'll be interesting to see what the stores look like. We plan to go early, get in and get out. If I plan this right, I won't have to leave home for another month.

I didn't like what I saw in China when they told people they could go out again. They were moving shoulder to shoulder. It reminded me of that episode on the old Star Trek series (The Mark of Gideon) where people plastered themselves against a window.

If the Chinese aren't careful, they're liable to start the whole thing all over again.

What I dislike most about this virus is that you can't get definitive answers out of anyone, or rather, every expert has a different take on the particulars. The media is a farce. They cloy you with all these sensationalist headlines so you feel compelled to click on the story.

9 times out of 10 (and I'm being generous here) the journalists behind the sensational headlines are slanting information for a flashier, more dire story. Yet when I drill down to the actual reports I find that the experts are just as unsure as everyone else.

For instance:
  • Some people are getting reinfected, but no one is sure why.
  • Some antibody tests are flawed. Some are accurate. The Chinese tests seem to be coming up flawed.
  • Some coronavirus testing sites are using flawed tests too. Some are not. Is it the tester? Is it the test? Is it the patient giving false-positives? According to this article false-positive results seem to stem from people suffering from the common cold which is also a coronavirus.
  • The US seems to be leading in coronavirus cases, yet suddenly, not a word is being said about the yearly flu. 80,000 people died of the common flu during the last recorded year. Are reports being skewed for effect--or maybe for government funds? The flu didn't just suddenly disappear. This is a yearly event.

    Want another mystery? The flu numbers seem to fluctuate depending on where and WHEN you go to a site. I know I read that 80K number back in January, yet now I'm finding different numbers on the same sites I visited. Why are historical statistics being revised?
The whole thing seems orchestrated to me. There's no one expert I feel I can trust. I suppose everyone has an agenda. I just wish their agenda was the good of the human race.

In a hundred years, maybe we'll know the truth, but by then I won't care.

There is one thing I'd like to know. Why bother getting tested for coronavirus if you only have mild symptoms? There are only a few drugs/treatments that can help and that's for people who are desperately ill. Most of us will recover after a couple of weeks.

So, how is the world treating you? Have you had to venture outside for work or shopping? How does it look where you live?

There's a lot of talk about opening business back up in May. That sounds about right, though I do hope they use a step method for more congested cities like NY and Chicago. For myself, aside from the necessary trip we have to make tomorrow, we plan on isolating at least one more month before we make another supply run. I suspect we'll be avoiding people for a few months after that too.

Are you looking forward to getting out? Or do you prefer a wait and see attitude?


Eugene and I are using homemade cloth masks when we go out, even if we're just walking in the neighborhood. When we come home, we put them in the washer immediately. So far they'd held up through several washings, but I'll make more as time permits in case the cloth ties fray due to my beginner sewing skills.

Regular school has been cancelled for us for the rest of the year. My son seems to be handling e-learning well, but I'm not sure yet what to do this summer if I have to return to the office full-time. There are some local programs for kids his age, but I don't know if they can maintain social distancing.
Maria Zannini said…
Sandra: Washing cloth masks should hold up for several washings. I don't attempt to sew. I'd probably bleed out before I was finished. LOL!

re: summer activities
That's a tough one. I wonder if they'll let you work from home more of the week. That's the word I'm hearing from several companies now that they know some people are performing well from home.
Stacy McKitrick said…
I'm looking forward to seeing my friends again, but I'm also okay with waiting and seeing how things progress once businesses are allowed to open up again. That disease is still out there and probably won't go away. I doubt I feel comfortable until a vaccine is in place.

As for the flu numbers, I read somewhere that those numbers were down because of all the social distancing and hand washing we're doing. It's not near as contagious as COVID-19, either. 40K deaths in 3 months with social distancing. Imagine what the numbers would be if we didn't stay at home.
Maria Zannini said…
re: Flu numbers
Maybe, but it sounds suspicious. You can't go from 80K to nil with only 2 months of self isolating. And you can't go around changing numbers for events that already happened. Somebody's playing footsies with the numbers.

We went out today for supplies. I was surprised that it was nothing like the hype in the news. There was toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and sanitizing wipes. Very few shelves were empty. We went to three stores and all three were no different than usual. Frozen pizza was the only thing hard hit.

Maybe that's only true because it's a smaller city.
Mike Keyton said…
We're being pushed to use homemade t shirt masks or those made from cotton which keep more things out because of its denser weave. The premise though is less to protect yourself but to protect others from your own coughing. The rel reason is that they don't have enough to protect carers and medical staff AS WELL as supplying the population as a whole
Maria Zannini said…
Mike: While I was out the majority of people I saw wore what I call "designer" masks, cloth masks with some pretty design.

Because Greg and I do a lot of things on the homestead that require proper filter masks, it's what we had on hand. It's not an inexhaustible supply though, which is why we treat them like gold and disinfect them as best we can.

I am sensing a shift though. Some people didn't wear masks--mostly young people, others wore them improperly, not covering the face correctly. Only the elderly were careful.