Surgical masks have become a common sight during the pandemic. Many people who use one to protect against the novel coronavirus stick it in their jacket pocket or hang it on their car’s rear-view mirror when they’re not wearing it.
While the masks are meant for single-use only, can they really be safely reused?
The answer is a qualified yes, but you shouldn’t stick them into your pocket.
For personal, everyday use, a surgical mask can be worn more than once under certain conditions, according to infectiologist Dr Peter Walger, spokesman for the board of directors of the German Society of Hospital Hygiene (DGKH).
“If it’s only been dampened by your breath, it can be dried and reused – but only by you, ” he says.
It shouldn’t be washed in a washing machine or anywhere else, and it shouldn’t be dried in an oven, Walger says. But you can wear it multiple times if you always hang it up to dry after use.
“There are no specific guidelines on this, because surgical masks are actually intended to be single-use products, ” says Walger, noting that reusing them in a medical setting would definitely be unacceptable.
In personal use too, care needs be taken. If your surgical mask is dirty or very damp, you should discard it. The same goes if someone coughs or sneezes in your face while you’re wearing it.
If you’re out and about for an extended period, you should have several surgical masks with you, advises Walger, “because even if you cough or sneeze into your mask yourself, it’s best to replace it”.
It’s also important to be careful when putting on and taking off your surgical mask if you want to wear it multiple times. Viruses and dirt can cling to the outside of the mask, so by no means should the outside come into contact with the inside. And you shouldn’t touch the edges or inside of the mask with your hands since they, too, can harbour viruses.
Surgical masks or, alternatively, FFP2 masks or masks providing a similar level of protection, such as N95 and KN95 masks, are now mandatory in shops and on public transport in many places.
Elsewhere, simple cloth face coverings, also known as “community” masks, may be regarded as sufficient. They’re effective in slowing the spread of coronavirus as well, Walger says.
“We have no reason to question the general recommendation to wear community masks, ” he remarks, “particularly if everybody wears one, including the person opposite you.”
But he’s critical of FFP2 masks, which he says are actually meant for use in industrial trades and whose level of impermeability inhibits breathing. To block viruses effectively, they must fit snugly on your face, otherwise you’ll breathe in air through the gaps. Older and weak people with difficulty breathing could be harmed by wearing one, Walger says.
The German Respiratory Society (DGP) also warns that improper handling or use of FFP2 masks, or ill-fitting ones, will result in inadequate protection. It therefore calls for increased public information on how to use them properly.
Even a small leak through which you breathe in air can greatly reduce the filtering performance of FFP2 masks. Wearers should make sure that the mask is sucked towards their face when they inhale. If you notice an air flow, the mask doesn’t fit well, and you should try out a mask that fits differently.
Men with a beard that prevents the mask from fitting snugly should shave it off.
When used properly, FFP2 masks provide a high degree of protection from airborne viruses for people in the vicinity of the wearer, and good – but not 100% – protection for the wearer. Surgical masks provide less protection for the wearer because they fit more loosely. The snugger the fit, the better they protect the wearer along with people nearby.
No matter what kind of face mask you wear, social distancing, frequent handwashing and keeping rooms well ventilated are also important in containing the pandemic.
“Only the entire package of measures guarantees substantial protection, ” Walger emphasises. – dpa