We’re well aware of the crucial role face masks play in reducing the transmission of viruses by now. However, a new modelling study out of Cambridge and Greenwich universities suggests that they may be even more important than originally thought.

“We show that, when face masks are used by the public all the time (not just from when symptoms first appear), the effective reproduction number, Re, can be decreased below 1, leading to the mitigation of epidemic spread,” the scientists wrote in the paper published Wednesday by the Proceedings of the Royal Society A.

According to SFGate, the modelling showed that when lockdown is enforced with the usage of face masks, disease spread is vastly diminished. And the masks don’t have to be top-of-the-line surgical or respirator masks—homemade options that catch only 50 percent of exhaled droplets would still result in a “population-level benefit”.

A mask from the first batch of reusable masks distributed by the government. Image: CLEO

During the circuit breaker, the government had distributed face masks to households. The Straits Times reported that the new masks uses “newer materials to improve their comfort and resistance to droplets. Both types are made of at least three layers of material and have a filtration efficiency of at least 95 per cent, even after 30 washes.”

You should, of course, wash your reusable mask before first use, just as how you would with your newly-bought clothes, and after every use. Washing your mask before the first use helps to remove any harsh chemicals and colour dyes that may cause skin irritation. And you don’t know for sure how many hands have touched the mask during the manufacturing process.

But how do you wash it after every use? What soap should you use? We asked Lee Shu Lay, Infection Control Manager at Thomson Medical Centre, for tips.

What type of soap should we use when washing our masks? Should we even use soap?

We should use mild detergent / soap. Baby soap is a good choice to keep your mask in better condition.

Can we wash our masks in the laundry, along with our other clothes?

Yes, there’s no issue, but your mask may potentially get stained from other coloured items in the laundry.

When hand-washing the masks, is there any specific way we should wash it?

Hand-wash the mask normally as you would do with any other garment. However, when drying the mask you may wish to squeeze the water out by pressing and not wringing. This will help the mask retain its shape and extend its use.

Should we soak it in water for a period of time?

We should soak the reusable mask with half a teaspoon of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) dissolved in hot water (that is higher than 65°C) for half an hour before washing. Sodium bicarbonate is a mild disinfectant as well as a deodorant.

Can we dry our masks in the dryer, or should we air-dry it?

Yes, you may wish to use a dryer. But if you want to extend the life of your mask, it is best to air-dry under indirect sunlight as tumble drying on high heat may spoil the mask’s fabric.

If you’re still set on using the first batch of reusable mask, here’s what to do if your mask doesn’t fit.

If your mask is too small

In a Facebook post, one Singaporean claimed that he is a “pretty big-sized guy” and the mask he collected from the government was a little too small for his face.

He was still grateful for the mask however, and found a way to modify it instead. According to him, these are the tools you will need: a shoelace; a pair of scissors, and a lighter.

Here are the steps:

  1. Cut your shoelace into four equal lengths. Use the lighter to ‘burn off’ the ends.
  2. Cut the mask’s ear-loop into half. Use the lighter to ‘burn off’ the ends.
  3. Tie each shoelace to a loose ear-loop (see photo below).
  4. Put on your mask and tie the extended strings together at the back of your head/neck.

So, I'm sure many of us went to collect the free re-usable mask distributed by our government today. I'm a pretty…

Posted by Gerard Su on Sunday, 5 April 2020

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If your mask doesn’t fit/is too big

To get your cloth mask to create a tighter seal on your face, however, another Facebook user has a suggestion.

The user on the Nurse Says Facebook page explained that the empty spaces created at the sides of the nose bridge when wearing a cloth mask may result in glasses fogging up or respiratory droplets to enter.

Her hack for the masks to fit snugly on a person’s face? Inserting wire ties into the top band of the masks to keep the germs out and the mask tight. For this, you will need wire ties and a pair of scissors

Here’s how you can do it:

  1. Take three wire ties and place them together, twisting both ends.
  2. On the inner side of the mask, cut a small hole near one side of the top band.
  3. Insert the wire ties into the small hole and ensure that the wire does not poke out through the hole.
  4. Adjust the wire ties so that you are able to bend it at the position where your nose bridge will be.
View this post on Instagram

How can we avoid foggy glasses when wearing these masks? Since this is fabric, there's no wire to press down. The empty space at the sides of your nose bridge when wearing these masks may (will) allow 1. moisture from your breath to fog up your glasses or 2. droplets from coughs/sneezes from outside to enter. Number 2 is important! Hence, I inserted those wire ties into the top band to better mold over our noses! If you're from Singapore, for those who haven't, please collect your reusable (washable!) face masks as soon as possible! EACH person is entitled to 1, so bring along your whole family's ICs/birthcerts to collect from locations here: https://www.maskgowhere.gov.sg. Some pointers: 1. The part with thread is the top part (shown in the vid). 2. Do not touch the outside of the mask while you're wearing them. It is covered with all sorts of germs, viruses etc. 3. Wash your mask after every use. Preferably, as mentioned during the presscon with PM Lee and the ministry taskforce, wear this the whole time you're out, remove when you're back home and quickly wash with soap. Dry properly! 4. This is purely my idea, not acknowledged by MOH or whatever. But! It doesn't compromise the filter since I only altered the band part, so it is safe! Maybe change the wire regularly just in case it rusts (only time will tell). 5. PLEASE remember to wash your hands before and after removing the mask. Thank you!

A post shared by 𝗣𝗮𝘂𝗹𝗮. 𝗦𝘁𝘂𝗱𝗲𝗻𝘁 𝗻𝘂𝗿𝘀𝗲 𝘀𝗵𝗮𝗿𝗶𝗻𝗴𝘀! (@nursesays) on

As a friendly reminder, there are also some things to note when wearing your face mask:

  • Do not touch the outside of the mask while wearing it.
  • Wear the mask for the whole duration while you are out and wash your mask immediately with soap after coming home, making sure to dry it properly.
  • Change the wire regularly in case of it rusting.
  • Wash your hands before and after removing the mask.

The reusable masks come with instructions by Gov.sg on how to wash it, and it’s as simple as using warm soapy water to wash it after every use and leaving it out to dry under the sun.

While we know that the coronavirus can remain active on stainless steel for up to three days, and up to 24 hours on cardboards, there is still no study on how long the virus can live on clothing and fabrics.

However, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that clothes that have been worn outdoors should be washed immediately, “using the warmest appropriate water setting” according to the clothes manufacturer’s instructions and it should dry completely.

It also notes that flu viruses can be killed with temperatures above 75 degrees, along with the use of common household cleaning products like detergents. 

More from CLEO:
Here’s What You Can Do To Help During The COVID-19 Outbreak
Apps That Help You WFH With Ease During The Circuit Breaker
Expert Tips: How To Prevent Breakouts When Wearing Face Masks

Read more Covid-19-related stories in our Self-care Guide.

Image: AsiaOne/ Bryan Lim, CDC Screengrab, sutichak / 123RF.com
Sally Manik, Melissa Goh / Trini Ng / AsiaOne / April 2020