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Coronavirus face masks work – but only if you do so after wearing them, a study finds

Canvas face masks are useful for protection against the new coronavirus – but only if you wash them after each use, according to a new study that finds that reusing these face coats over and over again without washing them can increase the risk of pollution.

In addition, masks should be washed at high temperatures after each use to ensure they are completely decontaminated, according to an analysis by the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, recently published in the BMJ Open.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says face masks are washed with detergent and water that is at least 60 degrees Celsius - or about 140 degrees Fahrenheit.  (iStock)

The World Health Organization (WHO) says face masks with cloth are washed with detergent and water that is at least 60 degrees Celsius – or about 140 degrees Fahrenheit. (iStock)

The analysis is based on a randomized controlled trial published in 2015 that looked at how effective face masks with a towel are for preventing viral infections from common respiratory pathogens such as influenza, rhinoviruses (colds viruses) and seasonal coronaviruses. The study at the time found that double-layer cotton masks were “not as effective as surgical masks in a hospital setting and potentially increased the risk of infection compared to not wearing a mask at all,” according to a university report. However, researchers who conducted the new analysis now claim that the way the towel masks were washed may explain why they performed so poorly in the original study.

In particular, the so-called “washing data” were reported independently by health workers in Vietnam in 2011, who at the time were working in “high-risk wards in health facilities”, according to a news release. According to the researchers who conducted the analysis, the study was the only randomized controlled trial “ever done on the effectiveness of fabric masks to prevent viral infections.”


Most health workers in the original study – about 77% – reported washing their masks by hand. But in the analysis, the researchers found that the risk of healthcare workers’ infections more than doubled when their face masks were washed in this way, compared to those when the masks were washed in hospital washing machines.

What’s more: “There is no significant difference in infection between [health care workers] who wore cloth masks washed in hospital laundry compared to medical masks, ”the analysis concludes.

In fact: “Given the potential consequences for health workers or community members who use cloth masks during a pandemic, we looked in depth at the 2011 data on whether health workers washed their masks daily and, if so, how they they washed their masks. “We found that if cloth masks were washed in a hospital laundry, they were as effective as a surgical mask,” said Raina McIntyre, a professor at the University of New Wales in Sydney.


The researchers in the original study did not test for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, because the virus did not exist at the time. But researchers at the BMJ Open say past findings could still be applied to the new virus.

“Both fabric masks and surgical masks should be considered ‘contaminated’ after use,” McIntyre said. “Unlike surgical masks, which are discarded after use, cloth masks are reused. Although it can be tempting to use the same mask for several days in a row or do it quickly by washing your hands or wiping, our research shows that this increases the risk of contamination. ”


“This has become a point of contention over the debate over fabric masks between groups of professionals and against masks, both of which focused on our 2015 study in their arguments – but a closer look at the laundry data suggests that hand washing has made the towel masks more risky than the towel mask itself. When we break down data in this new way, comparing machine washing to hand washing, a machine-washed cloth is as effective as a surgical mask, ”MacIntyre continued. “There is a lot of research on the design, fabric and construction of masks, but washing is also key to protection.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) says face masks made of fabric should be washed with detergent and water that is at least 60 degrees Celsius – or about 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

“The results of our analysis support this recommendation,” McIntyre said. “The clear message from this study is that fabric masks work – but once the fabric mask is worn, it must be washed properly each time before being worn again, otherwise it will cease to be effective.”


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