Earlier this month, U.S. health officials said Americans should wear N95 or KN95 masks like the ones used by health care workers to slow the spread of the coronavirus instead of cloth masks, which are less effective. Specifically, the CDC recommends people 2 years and older wear a mask over their nose and mouth in public indoor spaces.
But it’s not always easy to find N95 masks and they can be expensive, especially if your circumstances require you to wear one every day. You also have to be sure you’re buying a legitimate N95 or KN95 mask. The CDC has warned there are a lot of counterfeit masks on the market.
You can check the authenticity of your N95 mask on the CDC’s alphabetical list of NIOSH-approved respirators or by checking the TC approval number on the certified equipment list. For KN95 masks, use this FDA list to find KN95 masks made in China, and this list for KN95 masks made in other countries.
Some good mask news, though — the Biden administration is making 400 million N95 masks available for free to U.S. residents. They will soon be available for pickup at pharmacies and community health centers across the country, including in San Antonio. (We have reached out to multiple pharmacies and will provide more information when they receive shipments.)
The N95 masks filter at least 95% of airborne particles and provide a higher level of protection, especially in crowded indoor spaces.
Can you reuse a N95 or KN95 mask?
N95 masks were made for one-time use. But given the difficulty in obtaining them and the expense of buying new ones, many are wondering if it’s safe to re-use them.
The short answer is, according to health experts — yes, you can reuse them if you take some precautions.
The CDC has outlined some guidelines about reusing masks in emergency situations. It’s directed at medical professionals, but some of the advice can also be applied for home use.
Here’s the bottom line — if you plan to reuse your mask, you need to have at least five and rotate them daily.
After you wear a mask, you can store it in a breathable paper bag (like a lunch sack) for a minimum of five days before wearing it again. Putting it in a bag for five days will give some time for pathogens to die off, the CDC says.
Be sure to wash your hands or use hand sanitizer before and after you remove your mask because you should treat it as if it is contaminated.
If you wait five days between wears, you should be able to wear that mask again, but no more than five times total. That’s because the mask only works if it fits snuggly to your face and the more you wear a mask, the looser it becomes.
Or as the CDC puts it:
“The number of times that an FFR can be reused will likely be limited by its fit because the tethering straps can become weaker or stretched after each donning. Each time an N95 FFR is donned or doffed, the integrity of the straps may be impacted. Repeated donning and doffing will result in the straps no longer being able to generate enough force to create a tight seal with the face. The resulting poor seal will allow unfiltered air to enter the N95 FFR and into the wearer’s breathing zone.”
Can you clean an N95 or KN95 mask?
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) found that N95 masks could be cleaned using ultraviolet germicidal irradiation, vaporous hydrogen peroxide and moist heat.
We reported at the beginning of the pandemic that University Health found success using a hydrogen peroxide process already used to decontaminate other medical equipment to clean masks.
But since most of us at home don’t have access to that kind of technology, we have fewer options.
Researchers have found that N95 masks could be sterilized using an Instant Pot, rice cooker or any other electric cooker. If you’re interested in trying it, click here for a how-to. (Never put your mask in the microwave!)
Note that even if you clean your N95 mask, the CDC still recommends that it be worn no more than five times.
What about cloth masks and disposable surgical masks?
While N95 masks are the most effective masks for stopping the spread of COVID-19, the CDC still says any mask is better than no mask.
Your next best option to an N95 mask is a disposable surgical mask. Those are meant for one-time-only use and should be disposed of properly after each wearing.
If you only have a cloth mask, it’s recommended that you wash it after every use.
Watch: Metro Health Medical Director, Dr. Junda Woo explains how to extend the life of your N95 mask: