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How Long Do N95 Masks Last - Sterilize Your N95 Face Masks

by SABU VARGHESE, April 22, 2020

how long do n95 masks last

How long do n95 masks last? The novel coronavirus is one of the most ineffective strains. Not only could it be spread via droplets from secretions, but it could also be acquired by touching a 'contaminated' surface. In fact, the virus proves to be very resilient, as it can last on glass, ceramics, metal, and paper for up to 5 days. Add to that, a recent report also suggests that it may be passed from a dead, infected carrier to a live person.  

Because of the potency of the novel coronavirus, personal protective equipment (PPE) continue to be in high demand. But the truth of the matter is – even in rich countries such as the United States – there is a shortage of PPE. Most are forced to go to the frontlines unprotected, without the Center for Disease Control's (CDC) preferred PPE

how long do n95 masks last

According to the CDC, a healthcare provider who deals with a Covid-19 patient should wear a face shield/goggles, N95 mask, isolation gown, and gloves. 

As the Novel Coronavirus is a respiratory disease, the gold standard mask N95 should be worn when dealing with afflicted patients. True to its’ name, this respirator can filter up to 95% of airborne particles. However, it is not resistant to oil. 

Ideally, an N95 respirator should be thrown out after use, although the CDC says that it can be donned for a maximum of 5 times. Given the shortage of masks, the ideal practice does not apply to this pandemic.

The situation has become so dire that some healthcare professionals are even forced to reuse their N95 masks. Unfortunately, this practice proves to be detrimental - as evidenced by the doctor who died after using his respirator for 4 consecutive days.  

To prevent the rise of similar cases - and to ease the pressure as the government tries to secure more N95 masks – Stanford researchers proposed an ingenious solution: and that is to decontaminate masks through 'novel' ways.

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how long do n95 masks last

The Importance of Sterilizing Your Mask 

While your reused mask may not show obvious signs of contamination, it may be harboring the Covid-19 virus, among many other pathogens. According to the CDC, as much as 99.8% of germs can stay on a respiratory after exposure to a sneeze or cough. 

Sadly, this places the user at risk of acquiring the disease, especially if he/she is donning a reused mask. After all, a report has shown that healthcare professionals touch their eyes, face, or mask an average of 25 times per shift. With that being said, sterilizing your mask is one of the best ways to prevent Covid-19 transmission – especially in this time of shortage. 

how long do n95 masks last

How to Sterilize your N95 Mask at Home

According to Dr. Larry Chu, MD and Dr. Amy Price of Stanford University, one of the best ways to decontaminate an N95 mask is to heat it in an oven at a temperature of 158O Fahrenheit or 70O Celsius. The mask should be left in a cooking oven for about 30 minutes.  While the study made use of E.coli, a bacteria, and not the novel Coronavirus (due to obvious safety aspects), results show that oven sterilization can get rid of as much as 99% of germs. The said procedure can maintain the mask’s filtration capacity to an impressive 96.60%.  

This makeshift sterilization procedure was also advocated by researchers from Michigan State University. According to their interview with The Sun news, this process can be done for approximately 20 times. 

Another way to decontaminate your mask is to expose it to hot water vapor from boiling water. This procedure can be done in as short as 10 minutes. Results show that this can get rid of 99% of microbes while maintaining the mask's filtration efficacy at 94.7%.

And, in the offshoot chance that you have a UV light sterilizer at home, you can use this gadget as well. How long do N95 masks last? You can expose your N95 mask to UV light for approximately 30 minutes for it to be 'safe enough’ to be used again. 

Limitations of Sterilization and Reuse 

While oven sterilization (and the other mentioned methods) prove to be promising in this pandemic, the researchers admit that there’s no way to determine how reuse can affect the mask’s fit. To wit, a snug fit is one of the things that make the N95 effective, after all. If the mask is no longer fitting as well as it should be, the germs might leak into the mask, defeating its purpose. 

When to Throw Your Mask Away

Granted that you have been able to sterilize your mask through the oven method or hot water vapor for a couple of times, there will come a time when you have to eventually throw it away. While it might be tempting not to do so with the shortage of N95 masks and whatnot, here are the signs that you should discard your respirator, according to the CDC

  • You used it during an aerosol-generating procedure (i.e. sputum catch, suctioning secretions, intubating or putting a breathing tube through the patient’s airway).
  • Your mask has been contaminated with blood, respiratory secretions, or other bodily fluids. 
  • You treated a Covid-19 patient who is suffering from a co-occurring infectious disease. 
  • You have touched the inside part of your mask. 
  • Your respirator is damaged.
  • You find it difficult to breathe through your N95 mask. 

What You Can Do to Extend the “Life” of Your N95 Mask

The availability of new respirators may not take place anytime soon, with the high demand for the said products. As the United States and many other countries scramble for PPE, the best you can do is to observe these CDC-recommended practices that can extend the ‘life' of your N95 mask:

  • Store your mask in a paper bag or any other clean, breathable container. Label this with your name. 
  • Make sure that your N95 does not come in contact with any other mask/item that can contaminate it. 
  • Wash your hands or use a sanitizer before adjusting your N95 mask. 
  • Use a clean pair of gloves when performing an N95 seal check. Discard the gloves right thereafter.

how long do n95 masks last

The novel Coronavirus continues to ravage through many countries, and it shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. As PPE shortages continue to loom, sterilizing your N95 mask seems to be a smart practice for now. With that being said, it’s best to adhere to the expert tips mentioned above - so you can keep your mask ‘decontaminated’ as you wait for the replenishment for supplies. 

Although some of these suggestions seem practical when N95 masks are in short supply, it is always a good idea to keep an eye on the updated guidelines published by the CDC and World Health Organizations.