How Contaminated is Your Mask?

How Contaminated is Your Mask?

We have become accustomed to wearing a mask as a barrier to protect us from viruses, but as we move into cold and flu season, have you thought of what kind of contamination is in both the inside and outside of the mask, especially when sneezing and coughing inside of a mask worn for several hours. Would you pick one up if you saw it laying on a surface as we are beginning to see far too often? How about when you are dining and the person preparing the food or handling your glass and utensils is touching the outside of the mask repeatedly and moving it slightly to communicate more clearly, then on to the next table in a restaurant? Studies have shown that a person typically touches there face at least 16 times per hour which is a germ spreader and now that we are adjusting a mask, that number can more than double. These are legitimate questions and concerns that have been raised. The fact is that masks are magnets for bacteria and viruses as they provide a warm, moist environment for bacteria to grow, and they can let in infections if they’re worn against your face for a long time.

The concern with how to properly handle a mask in a profession or as an adult is one aspect, but parents are also making themselves aware of how this affects their children. To be more proactive, parents contracted with the lab due to concerns about the potential of contaminants on masks that their children wore all day at school, taking them on and off, setting them on various surfaces, eating, and wearing them in the bathroom, etc. This prompted them to send the masks to the University of Florida’s Mass Spectrometry Research and Education Center for analysis. A total of 6 face masks were sent to the lab at the University of Florida for an analysis of contaminants found on the masks after they had been worn. The report found that five masks were contaminated with bacteria, parasites, and fungi, including three with dangerous pathogenic and pneumonia-causing bacteria. Although the test can detect viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, only one virus was found on one mask (alcelaphine herpesvirus 1).

The analysis detected the following 11 dangerous pathogens on the masks:

  • Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumonia)
  • Mycobacterium tuberculosis (tuberculosis)
  • Neisseria meningitidis (meningitis, sepsis)
  • Acanthamoeba polyphaga (keratitis and granulomatous amebic encephalitis)
  • Acinetobacter baumanni (pneumonia, blood stream infections, meningitis, UTIs—resistant to antibiotics)
  • Escherichia coli (food poisoning)
  • Borrelia burgdorferi (causes Lyme disease)
  • Corynebacterium diphtheriae (diphtheria)
  • Legionella pneumophila (Legionnaires’ disease)
  • Staphylococcus pyogenes serotype M3 (severe infections—high morbidity rates)
  • Staphylococcus aureus (meningitis, sepsis)

Half of the masks were contaminated with one or more strains of pneumonia-causing bacteria. One-third were contaminated with one or more strains of meningitis-causing bacteria. One-third were contaminated with dangerous, antibiotic-resistant bacterial pathogens. In addition, less dangerous pathogens were identified, including pathogens that can cause fever, ulcers, acne, yeast infections, strep throat, periodontal disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and more. Attached is a statement that was released by University of Florida’s Mass Spectrometry Research and Education Center for analysis:

Taking the Proper Precautions is One Way to Manage:

Don’t pull or Touch
It can be a natural reflex to touch or tug at your mask due to irritation or to communicate with others. Wear your mask loosely enough to breathe freely and move your mouth to speak while still having the correct fit, it can eliminate having to adjust.

Don't Wear Your Mask Below Your Nose
The purpose of wearing a mask is to make sure mucus and saliva don’t escape from your nose and mouth and spread to someone else. It is also supposed to be a shield from droplets that might infect you.

Don't Wear Your Mask Above Your Chin
Your mask should fit snugly over the whole lower half of your face and chin. When your chin’s left uncovered, viruses can reach your mouth, nose, and eyes. They can also escape from your mouth and pass to others. It can also let your mask ride up on your face, which can fog your glasses or even block your vision

Touching Your Face
To avoid break outs and rashes, wash your face with a gentle cleanser. Your dermatologist can help you choose a product with the best ingredients for your skin. For example, dimethicone can make a barrier that helps calm riled-up skin.

Use a Coffee Filter
Sometimes, more is more. Adding a filter to your mask does protect you better. Look for filters rated PM (for “particulate matter”) 2.5. The tight weave blocks tiny droplets and particles. A paper coffee filter’s pores measure in at 20 micrometers -- too big for it to be an effective barrier. If your mask doesn’t have a filter pocket, use one with more than one fabric layer or wear two masks.

Don’t Tweak Your Mask to Fit

If your mask is too big, don’t crisscross the ear loops behind your head. Instead, make a knot in each one to shorten it a bit. Put the knots behind your ears so the mask doesn’t cinch and gap at the sides. If the loops are too short, extend them with string or a shoelace. If you wear a hijab, put the mask on over it and fasten the loops in back with a safety pin or paper clip. (This works if your mask puts pressure on your ears, too.

Don’t Reuse Disposable Masks
Disposable masks are to be used only once. Make sure it fits right, just like a reusable one. It should cover your nose and mouth without gaps. The colored (usually blue) side should face out. Be sure to pack extras to go. When you’ve worn a disposable mask once, toss it safely into a trash can. If you take your mask off to eat, replace it with a fresh one when you’ve finished your meal. Many places have them on hand so if you forget to bring one, you can always request a new one.

Your Mask Has Been Overused
Maybe it’s specially monogrammed or it has a favorite print. Regardless, if your mask has tears, holes, or is worn, sprung, or soiled, it’s time to toss it. To make your masks last longer, don’t let them get wet from saliva, sweat, makeup, or other contaminants as the fabric can get moldy if not washed ASAP. It is a good idea to carry a plastic bag for the mask until it can be washed properly.

Don’t Use a Dirty Mask
After each wearing, toss your mask into regular laundry with hot (160 F) water. Or hand-wash it in steamy, soapy water for at least 20 seconds. Tumble dry on high or air-dry in direct sunlight. Meanwhile, wear a clean spare.

Wash Up Before and After Masking Up
To keep germs at bay and help your mask do its job, wash your hands, or use 60%-alcohol hand sanitizer before putting it on and anytime you need to adjust it on your face. Handle your mask by the loops or ties rather than tugging where is covers your mouth or mask area. To take it off, grab the ear loops or untie the strings, bottom ties first. Then wash your hands.

Wash a New Mask

It may be brand-new, but many things have touched your latest mask before you get it, especially if it’s handmade. Wash it in hot water (160 F) with residue-free detergent or soap. Rinse it well with fresh water. Then hang to dry. Or soak your mask for 5 minutes in a quart of water with 2 tablespoons of bleach, or a gallon with a third of a cup of bleach.

Store It Right
It’s easy to toss your mask onto the dashboard or seat when you get in the car. But your mask needs a clean place to stay when it’s not on your face. If it isn’t wet or soiled, put it in a dry paper or mesh bag so it won’t mildew or sour. If you’re out to eat, you can stash it in a clean pocket or purse with a disposable napkin in a pinch -- but never on the table. After your meal, wash your hands and then put your mask back on with the same side facing up.

How to select a mask according to the CDC.