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Cloth face coverings are a must in this era of rampant coronavirus. In some countries, if you’re not wearing one, you can’t use public transport or enter supermarkets or shops.

These “community”, non-medical cotton masks lower the risk of transmitting the virus – mainly from the wearer to other people – and are among the precautions recommended by health experts to slow the spread of Sars-CoV-2, along with social distancing, coughing or sneezing into the crook of your arm rather than your hands, and frequent, thorough handwashing.

Many people are unsure of how to care for their face mask, though. Where should you put it, for instance, if you’re walking to a shop and don’t want to wear it the whole time? And how should you clean/sterilise it? In a washing machine? In an oven? By ironing it? An infectious disease specialist and a hygienist have provided some answers.

It’s not about protecting yourself: The recommendation of face masks is based on evidence that they can prevent the wearer from passing a virus on to someone else. (Photos: dpa)

#1. How should a mask be carried from one place to another?

Ideally, you should put the mask on immediately after a thorough handwashing, taking care not to touch the inside of it. But this means putting it on at home and wearing it all the way to your destination, which can be uncomfortable and make the mask quite damp before you even get there – not a good thing.

If you prefer to put the mask on just outside the shop, you should carry it in a plastic bag rather than a trouser pocket – or at least in a pocket you don’t usually stick a hand into, advises Peter Walger, spokesman for the German Society of Hospital Hygiene (DGKH).

“The inside [of the mask] must be protected,” he says, adding you should know the situations requiring a mask and keep the mask on the entire time.

In situations not requiring a mask, a lot of people pull theirs down below their chin and let it dangle around their neck. The Cologne-based Federal Centre for Health Education (BZgA) discourages this practice.

Dr Joerg Janne Vehreschild sees no problem with it, however. An infectious disease specialist for the German Centre for Infection Research (DZIF), Vehreschild heads a research team studying risk factors for Covid-19, the respiratory disease that can be caused by SARS-CoV-2.

“Purely from the perspective of viral infection, it makes little difference whether you carry the mask in a plastic bag or hang it around your neck,” he says.

#2. What should you do if you have difficulty breathing with a mask on?

You shouldn’t have any difficulty. Nevertheless, many people become somewhat anxious after wearing a mask for a while, and feel that it’s hard to breathe. While Vehreschild says that typical cotton masks are very air-permeable and shouldn’t cause an oxygen deficiency, he has a possible explanation for feeling otherwise.

“I think you become very aware of your breathing, which may cause you to imagine a kind of breathlessness,” he says, recommending that you keep calm while wearing a mask and not inhale or exhale strongly, since “this can lead to hyperventilation.”

In other words, take slow, shallow breaths, and occupy your mind with things other than your breathing.

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#3. Can a mask’s fabric be responsible for breathing problems?

Tightly woven fabrics are better suited for community face masks than lightly woven ones, according to Germany’s Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices (BfArM). At the same time, they should allow you to breathe freely.

“You can test a mask’s air-permeability by placing it against your lips and seeing if you can breathe through it easily,” suggests Vehreschild. “If you have to blow hard to make air get through, it’s definitely the wrong fabric.”

This procedure may well be frowned on if you plan to buy a mask in a shop. But if you make one yourself, you’ll have no problem vetting the fabric before you reach for a needle and thread.

#4. How should you clean/sterilise a mask?

“In a washing machine at a temperature of at least 60 degrees Celsius or, alternatively, by boiling it in a pot of water for about 10 minutes. These are the safest methods,” Walger says.

For the latter method, the fabric obviously must be boil-proof, and cotton generally is. If the mask contains other materials too, for example rubber, an intermediate layer of some sort, or certain metals, you should find out whether they can be safely boiled, remarks Walger, who points out that “temperatures of 60 degrees Celsius and higher kill viruses.”

After a cycle in the washing machine, your mask will be clean again – so long as you use a minimum of 60 degrees.

#5. Are there other ways to clean/sterilise a mask?

Yes, but they’re not wholly advisable.

“All the other methods that are sometimes recommended – oven, microwave, ironing – can perhaps be considered only if the mask can’t be washed. And it’s not certain that the same temperature acts everywhere [on the mask],” Walger says, noting you can’t hang a mask in an oven or a microwave, where it may lie on a baking tray.

“And what’s especially important: This doesn’t clean the mask.”

Masks with wire should NOT be put into a microwave, as this is a fire hazard. And Walger adds: “Medical masks such as surgical masks or filtering facepieces (FFPs) can’t and shouldn’t be washed. They’re disposable items strictly for medical use.”

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