Cloth Masks don’t cut it. To best protect yourself against omicron, experts suggest you may need a respirator mask (think KN95 masks and N95 masks) or a surgical mask. As SELF previously reported, the low-tech material of a cloth mask isn’t as effective at blocking small aerosol particles–respirator and surgical masks are made with at least one layer of polypopylene, which electrostatically filters out these tiny airborne particles. Because of their looser fitting, cloth masks are less effective in preventing transmission of omicron. They’re about 25% effective at blocking the transmission of virus-carrying particles overall–which, should be noted, is better than nothing–but far inferior to respirator masks, which are up to 95% effective at blocking the transmission of virus-carrying particles, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Getting your hands on disposable respirator masks, however, is getting more challenging. So, how long can you safely wear an N95 or KN95 mask before throwing it out?
According to guidelines for health care facilities issued by the CDC, N95 masks should ideally only be used once, and (un-ideally) up to five times. Your mask’s fit and filtration performance are compromised the more you use it. This is critical to ensure that these masks protect against the transmission of the omicron variant through the air.
Considering that there is no end to the pandemic ,, you would need to keep hundreds of masks in your possession if you only intended to use one. This seems almost impossible. While the CDC officially declared the shortage of N95 masks over for health care facilities in the U.S. last May, for many people in this country “a mask is not always affordable or convenient to get,” President Biden said in an address on Thursday, per CNN. It may be easier to get respirator masks soon. In his remarks, Biden announced that he will begin distributing free masks in America. Details of the plan will be revealed next week.
Health experts offer some tips to prolong the life expectancy of your respirator mask. One strategy is to rotate your masks, storing them in a clean dry paper bag between uses, according to the North Dakota health department. Let’s say you have seven masks. You would wear one on Mondays and one on Tuesdays. “If you’re rotating your masks, washing your hands and storing them well, you can get five to a little bit more uses with them,” Joseph Gastaldo, M.D., a physician who specializes in infectious diseases with OhioHealth, told USA Today. To make sure any virus particles on the mask die between uses, make sure they’re stored in the paper bag for a minimum of five days, per the CDC.
Another trick? Place your mask in the oven. Researchers at Columbia University in New York found that heating an N95 mask can kill lingering virus particles. They recommend that you place your mask in a paper bag, then put it into an oven-safe bag. This is similar to what you would use for a turkey. Place the double bagged mask into the oven at 175 degrees Fahrenheit for 45 minutes and then let it cool. The federal government, meanwhile, recommended the use of moist heat, like that used in a pressure cooker or InstantPot, to disinfect your N95.
If you are reusing your N95 or KN95 mask, it’s important to ensure that it continues to fit properly, meaning it’s snug enough to create a seal with your face. It’s time for a replacement if the elastic straps become too stretched or the nose bridge loses its shape.