Do you change your face mask as often as your skivvies? - (12/1/2020)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro

The pharmacist was busily checking prescriptions when he heard a sneeze. He looked up and saw a man sneeze again, right into his facemask. Then, he took the mask off, wiped it on the back of his jeans, and put it back on. The pharmacist thought, “Well, he would be breathing his own germs. But wouldn’t the mask be slimy on his mouth? And taste snotty?" This is the same sort of person who slaps a soggy ten spot into the pharmacist’s hand for his co-pay. Arguably, that mask is as nasty as day-old underwear. 

Most people change their underwear daily. If this is more of a weekly event for you, then you probably already have several nicknames. What about your facemask? In the TV show M*A*S*H, the circa 1952 surgeons threw their cloth masks on the OR floor for Klinger to clean up. Today, we have all sorts of facemasks available, from paper to heavy cloth. The materials from which face masks are made vary, and along with that, their effectiveness in blocking respiratory droplets. A University of Arizona study revealed that the most efficient masks are cotton-blend fabrics and antimicrobial pillowcases. The denser the fibers in a mask's material, the better it is at filtering. For that reason, higher thread counts result in improved protection. The materials that were terrible at blocking the virus were scarves and cotton T-shirts. Whatever! Reusable masks, like underwear, get dirty, maybe in a different way than underwear. After all, your mouth and nose are the gateways to your internal organs. That’s where COVID viruses like to hang out their shingle. 

If you wear a cloth mask frequently, the best suggestion is to launder it every time you wear it. Use detergent and the hottest water the fabric can withstand because heat will definitely ice that bug. This is no time to think about brightening the colors of your "Hello Kitty" gaiter. When drying, tumble the masks on the hottest setting the material will endure. If you have four or five masks in your car – hanging from your rearview mirror next to your Rosary – it’s better to store them in a paper bag, so they do not get moldy or pick up other crud while your buddy, Fat Gino, inadvertently sits on them. Do not store them in a plastic bag unless they are going straight to the laundry room. Otherwise, you will be creating a possibly deadly science experiment. If you are wearing a mask only sporadically, you can let it dry out in a paper bag between uses. If you wore it once and it has been a week since then, it is probably ok to put it back on because the virus most likely does not survive more than a day or two on soft surfaces. 

The evidence from study data is compelling. A recent study plotted the COVID-19 growth rate before and after mask mandates in 16 states between March and late May of 2020. Researchers found that mask mandates led to a demonstrable slowdown in the daily growth rate, suggesting that mandatory mask mandates may have prevented up to 450,000 cases of COVID-19 and a sizeable number of deaths. 

So what is the endgame here? The world is wearing facemasks to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus, which has caused a global pandemic. Just about everyone recommends wearing a mask in public – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, and the new Biden White House. Yes, controversies do swirl as to whether or not cloth masks are effective. One must couple a mask with social distancing and hand washing. One must also factor in whether one is at high risk or works around sick people. In any event, just wear the damn mask! 

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a recovering pharmacist, medical writer, and principal at Rx-Press.


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