How to extend the life of your N95 mask, get the most out of it

At the start of the pandemic, many of us chose to buy reusable cloth face masks to help fight the spread of COVID – they’re better for the environment than disposable, can be made locally, and come in a range of creative designs.

But since the emergence of the highly infectious variant of Omicron, we have been advised to wear a well-fitting respirator mask as a first choice (N95, KN95 or P mask). These, however, have a short shelf life, and reverting to a more wasteful product can be shocking to many environmentally conscious people.

Although it’s too early to say exactly how many disposable masks are going to landfill, we know that textile waste is already a major problem.

Since waste generation is likely to increase as we protect against Omicron, are there ways to minimize our waste without compromising our health?

Getting the most out of masks

It has been advised since mid-2020 that N95 masks provide the best protection against coronavirus. They generally offer a tighter fit to the face and a higher level of filtration than cloth masks, protecting the wearer from aerosols and droplets.

Also read: How many times can I reuse my N95 mask

But supply chain problems, shortage issues and the lower transmission rates of earlier variants meant that fabric and comparatively less effective surgical masks were suitable for low-risk settings. This is no longer the case under the Omicron variant.

A simple way to minimize waste if you own N95 masks is to safely extend their lifespan. In hospitals, it is advisable to avoid using them for more than one day and to throw them away if they are soiled or damp.

This, however, is not realistic for the general public, such as when supply is low. There are a range of methods to reuse N95 masks safely, which are supported by the inventor of the mask. There are also reusable options such as elastometric respirators.

For disposable respirators, the easiest method of reuse in non-medical settings is to rotate your mask every three to four days, storing it in a clean paper bag when not in use.

Wash your hands thoroughly before and after touching your mask and keep your mask dry – if your mask gets wet, stop using it. Remember to number your masks so as not to mix them up.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends using N95s up to five times before throwing them away (if they have been kept clean and are not damaged). But it’s important to note that the long-term effects of cleaning and reusing are still unknown.

No need to throw away the cloth masks. It’s important to have your favorite cloth masks handy in your car, bag or pocket, because any mask is better than no mask in low-risk and transient contact environments, such as at the outside.

Dual masking – placing your cloth mask over a disposable surgical mask – provides increased protection compared to a single cloth or surgical mask. And cloth masks will also provide protection against other droplet-based illnesses, such as the flu.

Sustainability in healthcare

The increase in disposable mask waste points to a broader problem that is increasingly recognized: hospital waste.

Take, for example, single-use plastic hospital gowns.

Environmentally responsible healthcare is an emerging field aimed at finding alternative solutions to the waste generated by healthcare, its impacts on the environment and how we educate healthcare professionals on the practices durable.

For example, research shows that it is possible to extend the “tiered approach,” which provides an additional choice of protection depending on low- or high-risk settings.

For example, incorporating reusable gowns, where appropriate, could help keep people safe, reduce pressure on supply systems and reduce waste.

Spearheading this effort is textile scientist Meriel Chamberlin, who is collaborating with clinicians to develop compliant, safe and reusable textile gowns that provide protection and comfort with less environmental impact than disposables.

When it comes to masks, more sustainable options are also being developed. This includes masks and filters made from biodegradable agricultural waste.

Research is also underway to identify processes for reusing discarded single-use face masks in road pavement materials.

Six ways to offset our daily waste
Even during a pandemic, people don’t want to waste. Tellingly, “Plastic Free July” saw a huge global increase in participation, from 250 million participants in 2019 to 326 million in 2020.

There are many ways to reduce waste without compromising your health. The key is to focus on behaviors within your control, like reducing single-use plastics. To help offset your daily disposable mask waste, consider:

– Switch to refillable cleaning products to reduce single-use packaging (there are even delivery options).

– If you’ve switched to online grocery delivery, choose paper over plastic bags and reuse them at home or compost them after use.

– When dining at home, reuse your leftovers, prioritize older foods, and avoid over-buying to reduce food waste.

– If you shop more online, find used retailers and peer-to-peer platforms to breathe new life into second-hand items (there are delivery options for this too).

– Before throwing away household items (clothes, furniture), try selling or giving them away online – you’d be surprised what others find useful.

– If your household items are damaged, have them repaired or use them for other purposes, such as using old clothes as cleaning rags.

Just because we’re in a time of significant social change doesn’t mean we have to lose our sustainability momentum.


(This article is syndicated by PTI from The Conversation)

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