When it comes to wearing masks during the pandemic, not all masks are equal in the protection they provide. From what I have read, cloth masks seem to provide the least protection, though they allow the wearer colorful options and the ability to make some kind of statement, though why some people feel the need to make statements through their attire is something that I find puzzling. The blue surgical masks appear to be better than cloth and the N95 masks are the best. But while the surgical masks are relatively cheap, the N95 masks are pricey (ranging from $1 to $3 each) and that raises the question of how long one can use them and whether they can be reused.
The good news is that the answer is yes, based on the fact that the coronavirus has a survival time of about 72 hours when outside a host.
Yes, reusing a mask is safe. Masks work the same way on any variant—by trapping virus-containing particles in their layers. Also, the coronavirus is transmitted mainly through respiration; you’re less likely to catch it by touching an infected surface. That said, it’s safest, and just good hygiene, to handle your masks with care, touching only the elastics and washing your hands afterward.
Though you may be tempted to rinse or wash your used disposable mask, even just to freshen it up, don’t try it. Getting the mask wet or agitating the mask with soap can damage the material.
“There’s no hard and fast rule,” said Sulmonte. The CDC paper-bag directive suggests discarding a disposable N95 mask after five uses. But that guideline was meant for workers in a healthcare setting. For everybody else, that may not be necessary. A mask is still wearable if its elastic bands continue to create a secure fit and the material looks clean and provides good airflow. (Dust, pollen, air pollutants, makeup, skin oils, and, yes, inactivated virus eventually accumulate and clog up the filter.)
Also think about where you’ve worn the mask and for how long. Someone who wears a mask in the subway every day, for example, may need to throw it out sooner than someone who wears theirs to the grocery store every once in a while. Whatever the circumstances, switch to a fresh mask if yours is dirty, thinning, damaged, or hard to breathe through, or if it no longer maintains a good seal.
The article says that if you cycle through several masks by using one a day while keeping the others in a brown paper bag in a dry, sunlit place (say a windowsill) for a few days, you are good to go.
It is interesting how the pandemic has resulted in me learning about things that it would never have crossed my mind to investigate before.