Most masks come without guidance for when it’s time to toss them. So we looked to an infectious disease expert, a dermatologist, a physician and a laundry expert to weigh in on all the signs a mask needs to be replaced. From loose straps to exposed threads, below are the warning signs your mask may be on its last legs.
Reusable cloth face masks are highly effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19. They are also our best eco-friendly option for protection, avoiding the microplastic pollution of single-use masks according to a recent study published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin.
But as sustainable as cloth masks may be, they do become less effective at blocking the coronavirus when worn thin by repeated washing and wearing. With this in mind, it’s important to look out for the signs that your mask is no longer safely filtering out respiratory droplets that carry the virus.
Here are the top six signs:
1. The straps are worn out
Rather than the mask fabric itself, it’s the elastic ear loops (or ties) that are the first place to show signs of wear ― especially if the mask has been exposed to high heat in the dryer, advised Hannah Yokoji, brand director of The Laundress, which sells nontoxic laundry and home cleaning products.
“The biggest thing to watch out for is the straps that keep the mask in place,” Yokoji said. “If these ties become loose or stretched, you need to stop using it straight away, because if the mask isn’t fitted properly to your face, you could be putting yourself and others in danger of COVID-19.”
2. The fit is no longer snug
Your mask needs to fit snug under the chin, across the cheeks and around the nose. If you’ve been wearing your mask for a while and the fit is starting to loosen ― especially if the mask no longer securely covers your nose and mouth ― it’s time to retire your mask.
A mask should also be replaced “if the nose clip no longer fits tightly around your nose,” said clinical public health and infectious disease expert Christina M. Madison.
3. Exposed threads, tears, holes
Retire any mask that has threads, tears and holes that are exposed or torn. Never use a mask with rips in it because the virus can enter and exit this way.
4. The mask is stained
Whether they’re caused by coffee spills or makeup, licensed physician Leann Poston said that stains on a mask can also be a sign that it’s worn out. “If the mask is visibly soiled and washing does not remove the stain, it’s probably time to toss it,” she added. “A stained mask has probably been overused and needs replacing.”
5. Fabric has worn thin
Mask materials can become thinner the more you wash them, and thinner fabric provides a weaker barrier to the transmission of COVID-19, according to cosmetic dermatologist Howard Sobel.
Testing for worn fabric can also be easily done in several ways. “You will probably be able to tell a cotton mask has become thinner by look and feel,” Sobel explained to HuffPost. “A way to test is to try blowing out a candle with your mask on. If you are able to blow it out, the mask is not effective at protecting you.”
Similarly, experts suggest checking whether you can see through the fabric or, outside in colder temperatures, whether your breath is visible.If you hold the mask up to the light and can see light through it, it is probably too thin to be effective.
6. Your mask has been washed 30+ times
Frequent washing will stretch the fibers in fabrics. This makes it crucial to wash your masks carefully but also to recognize when they’ve reached the end of their lifespan.
If you are using a high-quality mask, a guideline of 30 washes or 30 wearings is advised. “Typically, 30 washes (or 30 wears) is a good rule of thumb if it’s a high-quality mask,” Madison said, “because generally, cloth face masks will lose their shape, elasticity and effectiveness after multiple washes.”