Surgical-style face masks that are described as “single-use and disposable” are actually able to be reused and washed up to 10 times without losing their effectiveness, a French consumer group has discovered.
The consumer association UFC-Que Choisir tested three types of supermarket-bought “disposable” face masks. It found that the masks could withstand washing at 60C, tumble drying and ironing 10 times before they started to lose their filtration capacity.
The masks are normally considered to be disposable, and instructions on their box may say that they must be thrown away after being used for four hours, or as soon as they become damp.
Yet these masks can become a problem for the environment as they contain multiple materials, making them difficult to recycle and less likely to break down naturally.
But UFC-Que Choisir wrote: “Good news for the wallet and the planet. [These masks] keep their filtration capacity after 10 machine washes at 60C [and remain] well above the minimum standards required for fabric masks” by standards agency Afnor.
The levels of filtration remained at acceptable levels for “general public use”, UFC-Que Choisir said.
Anne-Sophie Stamane, health journalist at the association, said: “The masks were completely fine after the tests we did. The elastics were holding up [too].”
In fact, UFC-Que Choisir said that even after the washes, the surgical masks were “more effective than fabric masks that have the Afnor/DGA guarantee” on them.
These masks also passed the “breathing” test, and were found to be just as comfortable and breathable as fabric masks, “for comfortable use during calm activities”.
The masks can still only be worn for a maximum of four hours before they need to be washed, the association added.
Recycling and cost concerns
Some doctors, MPs, and environmental groups have long been calling for so-called disposable masks to be recycled and reused.
Dr Daniel Garin is one of them. He told news service FranceInfo that these masks can be washed and reused in most non-hospital environments, especially in the context of Covid-19.
He said: “[In hospital], washing allows us to eliminate the SARS-CoV-2 virus, but not certain bacteria. In contrast, doctors who wash their masks can reuse their masks without issues. Personally, I have been doing it since March.”
Washing and reusing masks also enables people to save significant sums on the cost of buying new ones.
Franck Attia, editor-in-chief at UFC-Que Choisir, said: “Even though the cost of masks has been on a downward trend since the beginning of the crisis, it is still much higher than the norms before this huge health crisis.
“Despite this drop in price, it is still a considerable cost. I remind you that surgical masks should be used for a maximum of four hours. Imagine the cost of that for a household with several children. From an economic point of view we can make substantial savings if we use our mask around 10 times.”