Technology & Science

Living with face masks: How to stow them, reuse disposables and more

Now that many of us will be wearing masks regularly for the foreseeable future, how can we make it work? Can you reuse disposable masks? Can you keep masks on your chin or dangling on your rearview mirror when not in use? How many does your child need for school? Here are some tips for living with masks.

A paper bag is good for storage when a mask is not in use, but under the chin is not

Face masks are becoming a part of everyday life. They're now required in public indoor spaces and on transit in many cities in Canada and the entire provinces of Quebec and Nova Scotia. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Now that wearing a mask to the mall, to the hairdresser and to school will be a regular occurrence for the next two years or more, a lot of questions have arisen about how it will fit into our busy lives.

Masks have recently become mandatory indoors in many cities across Canada and in the entire provinces of Quebec and Nova Scotia. The Public Health Agency of Canada is also recommending masks in schools for children over age 10, something that some provinces have already mandated.

Most of us have a handle on the basics, such as what types of masks there are and how to safely put them on and take them off.

We've also previously answered questions about:

  • The best materials.

  • Whether to use a filter.

  • How to sneeze or cough with a mask

  • How to stop your glasses from fogging up while wearing one.

  • Whether to wear goggles or face shields with your mask.

That said, now that we're out and about while wearing masks a lot more than before, here are the answers to some more questions you might have.

Is it safe to pull down my mask and keep it under my chin?

You've probably seen lots of people doing this as they move back and forth between indoor spaces where masks are typically required and outdoors spaces where they're not.

Is this safe? 

"No, that is probably the worst thing you could do with the mask," Dr. Zain Chagla, a professor and infectious disease specialist at McMaster University in Hamilton, said in a recent interview with CBC News.

WATCH | What's the safest way to wear a mask when not using it?

An infectious disease physician answers viewer questions about the COVID-19 pandemic including whether it’s safe to pull a mask around the chin when it’s not in use. 2:18

That's because it risks getting droplets or germs on the outside of the mask onto your chin and lower lip, he says. "You're basically putting all that stuff in your mouth and defeating the purpose of wearing a mask."

And of course, pulling the mask down often involves touching the front of it, which is not recommended, as it could contaminate your hands. (Remember that you should only hold the mask by the ear loops and wash your hands before and after).

The virus that causes COVID-19 is thought to be transmitted when infectious droplets enter through the eyes, nose or mouth.

Can I hang a mask on my rearview mirror between uses?

Dr. Anand Kumar, a professor of medicine at the University of Manitoba, says that depends on the level of risk it's been exposed to.

"As a physician, given the exposure I get in the hospital, I probably wouldn't do it," he says.

Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an associate professor at the University of Alberta's Division of Infectious Diseases in Edmonton, has previously recommended against it, too.

But Kumar acknowledges that the risk of infection in most public places in Canada is currently low, and if you were wearing a mask in a low-risk environment, it's probably OK to leave it hanging from the mirror overnight to wear the next day. That said, ideally you should change and wash your mask after each use.

A disposable medical-style mask can be reused until it's dirty, worn or damaged. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

What's the best way to stow a mask while on the go?

The federal government recommends storing your face mask in a paper bag, envelope, or something that won't retain moisture if you will be wearing it again.

Kumar notes that a plastic bag isn't recommended because it keeps moisture in, which could allow bacteria to grow on the mask.

He says the proper way to way to carry a mask with you is in a paper bag. However, he acknowledged this can be awkward, and said in places where the risk is low, it's OK to put the mask in your pocket.

On the other hand, Kumar says in a higher-risk environment, such as a community with outbreaks, it's best to keep the mask on at all times, even when you're outside between buildings.

"If you're putting the mask on and off, it gives you more chances to contaminate yourself with it," he says.

WATCH | Guidelines on how to wear a mask safely:

Glasses fog up? Not sure how often to wash the mask? CBC's Tina Lovgreen demonstrates how to wear a mask safely. 1:51

Can you reuse a disposable mask? How many times?

While cloth masks are designed to be washed and reused, most medical-style disposable masks are officially designed for a single use — especially in higher-risk environments.

But Kumar says you can reuse them, especially if you're just out and about in an area with a low prevalence of COVID-19. 

Between uses, he recommends leaving the mask in a paper bag for at least three days. During that time, any virus on the mask will gradually decrease.

He says it would be "perfectly reasonable" to have five to seven masks that are rotated into use on subsequent days.

How many times can you reuse a disposable medical-style mask?

Kumar says with this type of mask, what you see is what you get, so you can reuse it until it's dirty, worn or damaged. 

"Obviously, you don't want to reuse a mask that's soiled," he says.

N95 masks can also be reused, Kumar says. 

It is possible to reuse disposable face masks like this one. If you store it in a paper bag for at least three days between uses, any virus on it should be gone by then. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

Can you clean a disposable mask between uses?

Yes. Medical-style disposable masks can be steamed or exposed to sunlight to kill the virus more quickly, Kumar says.

Experts don't recommend using cleaners or especially disinfectants on such masks, as you could end up breathing them in the next time you use it.

Kumar says N95 masks contain filters that can be damaged with improper cleaning, but they can be safely steamed.

Of course, for cloth masks, washing in the laundry is "the most effective, easiest thing to do."

Wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, elementary school students walk to classes to begin their school day in Godley, Texas, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. An Ontario doctor recommends that students bring two clean masks to school each day. (LM Otero/Associated Press)

What should I look for when choosing a reusable mask?

As masks become a bigger part of daily life, you'll probably need more of them — like socks and underwear. Reusable cloth masks are generally recommended to maintain a supply of disposable, medical masks for essential workers who need them.

Given the huge variety of styles and prices, what should you look for?

Kumar suggests a mask:

  • With multiple layers, as additional layers add more protection. (The World Health Organization recommends three layers).

  • With a good fit — the shape doesn't matter, just the fit, since a tighter fit forces air through the mask instead of around it.

In terms of materials, he recommends cotton, since viruses remain detectable in some synthetic materials for a longer time. The World Health Organization recommends cotton or other water-absorbing materials for the inner layer, but recommends synthetic, water-repellent materials for the outer layer.

A higher price doesn't mean a mask is better, Kumar says. His favourite cloth mask cost $4.

How many masks should your child have for school?

Alberta, which will require teachers and students in Grade 4 and up to wear masks in schools,  is providing two cloth masks per student. But Dr. Jennifer Kwan, a Burlington, Ont., family physician who advocates wearing face masks in public places to curb COVID-19, thinks students will need more to allow time for some to go through the wash.

She recommends that a child go to school each day with two clean masks and switch to a new one after lunch.

About the Author

Emily Chung

Science and Technology Writer

Emily Chung covers science and technology for CBC News. She has previously worked as a digital journalist for CBC Ottawa and as an occasional producer at CBC's Quirks & Quarks. She has a PhD in chemistry.

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