What’s on my mask? ABC12 News investigates if your mask is a germ magnet

We submitted masks from our newsroom for lab testing
Published: Nov. 20, 2020 at 4:01 AM EST
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FLINT, Mich. (WJRT) - It has become a part of our everyday lives, wearing a mask before entering a building or crowded spaces. But you may not be actively thinking about the number of surfaces you touch everyday or how often you touch your mask to adjust it, or what may be on it if worn multiple days in a row.

ABC12 News wanted to get some answers.

We submitted two masks from our newsroom to EMSL Analytical Inc. for microbiology testing, overnighting them to a lab in North Carolina. For the purposes of this experiment, Matt Barbour and Dawn Jones wore their masks for a few days.

“Everybody is just looking for information it the wake of COVID,” says Melanie Rech, the National Bacteriology Program Manager at EMSL Analytical Inc.

After two weeks Rech went over the results after the lab identified several types of bacteria like like micrococcus lylea, staphylococcus epidermidis, and trueperella pyogenes. Those may sound scary, but Rech reveals, “Pretty much everything that was isolated from both of these masks are what I would consider normal skin flora.”

There was one unidentifiable bacteria rod on Dawn’s mask.

“Because it was unidentifiable we can’t really say what it was. But I can say that if it was something significant like E. coli or a pathogen like salmonella, or something like that, that it would have been identifiable,” says Rech.

So overall, good news.

“It is healthy to have a certain amount of bacteria on your skin, as long as it’s the good bacteria,” says Rech.

But what about bad bacteria?

“You can have bacteria stay viable on a mask for a long time if there’s also a lot of organic debris on it, so if it’s a really dirty mask,” says Dr. Ryan Sinclair, an Associate Professor of Environmental Microbiology at Loma-Linda University School of Public Health in California.

Sinclair preaches about the importance of proper mask care.

“You know, you’re actually putting an active vacuum on this thing. So you’re pulling germs, you’re pulling things from the air in right here,” he says, pointing to the front of a mask.

Sinclair has dedicated his career to studying how to disinfect various surfaces.

“Our whole society is building a new habit, and we have to be vocal about the best ways to manage this new habit,” says Sinclair.

He says there are two great ways to sanitize your cloth mask.

First, the more obvious is putting it in the washing machine:

- He suggests setting your washer to high or use water that is 140 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.

- Use your washer’s “sanitize” cycle if it has one.

- Make sure to use a detergent that contains disinfectant or bleach to ensure you are killing as many germs as possible.

- Dry your masks on the highest dryer setting or use direct sunlight.

- If washing by hand, prepare a bleach solution of five tablespoons of bleach per gallon of water and soak for at least five minutes and rinse thoroughly.

Did you know you can also disinfect your mask with a pressure cooker?

- You will need a slow or pressure cooker with a “sous vide” function.

- Cover the bottom of the cooker with water, place up to three masks in a paper bag, and set it on the rack inside the cooker.

- You will steam the masks for 30 minutes on the “sous vide” setting at 140 degrees.

“There’s some bacterial spores than can stay on there for, you know, up to a month. But those are more rare,” says Sinclair.

He says that is why it is all the more important to be wearing a clean mask.

Melanie Rech agrees, saying it is the key to keeping bad bacteria away.

“Those types of bacteria don’t really survive well on dry surfaces.”

Early on in the pandemic, there were debunked theories that a mask harbors germs and can make you more sick. The bottom line, as long as you have a clean, dry mask, you are good to go.

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