How Often Should You Replace Your N95 Masks To Make Them As Effective As Possible?

Photo: Getty Images/Aleksandar Pirgic
"Phone, keys, wallet" is the little reminder I used to give myself before walking out the door of my Manhattan apartment. Nowadays, my routine is a bit more complicated. "Phone, keys, wallet, mask" is my new daily slogan. If you can relate, you've probably wondered how long you can wear a disposable N95 mask before it's time to retire it for good. Fortunately, Jyotsna Shah, PhD, President of COVID-19 lab IGeneX, Inc, has a few guidelines so that you feel confident wearing your PPE out and about. 

"With the rise of the new, highly contagious Omicron variant, an increasing number of experts are recommending a switch to an N95 mask," says Dr. Shah. As the name suggests, N95 respirators that have been approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and filter up to 95 percent of particles in the air that could contain COVID-19. "While traditionally thought of as a single-use mask, this isn't quite the case. And in 2022, patients have limited access to N95 masks as the prices climb," says Dr. Shah.

Experts In This Article
  • Jyotsna Shah, PhD, infectious disease expert; president and laboratory director of IGeneX

Because these masks are in short supply, Dr. Shah says you can safely wear your N95 up to five times before it's time to toss it. "This is because with every use of your N95 mask, the straps will loosen slightly, breaking the tight seal around your face. My recommendation is to purchase a pack of N95 masks and rotate day by day, ensuring that you get the best use out of each mask," she explains. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends this five-time rule, too, but the guideline is specifically for healthcare providers, so there might be wiggle room for the rest of us.

Consider adhering to the five-time guideline, but look out for signs that your mask has gone through too much wear and tear. "Obvious damage such as tearing in the mask is a sign to replace immediately. However, you should also keep a careful eye out for fraying straps. This is another sign to replace your mask as it indicates that it won't create a strong enough seal around your face to protect you," says Dr. Shah. For example, if you wear your N95 to, say, play tennis, you might want to swap it out, stat. 

"My recommendation is to purchase a pack of N95 masks and rotate day by day, ensuring that you get the best use out of each mask." —Jyotsna Shah, PhD, President of COVID-19 lab IGeneX, Inc

Another thing of note? Dr. Shah says you cannot extend the life of your N95 by throwing it in the washing machine. "I do not recommend using your N95 mask if you've run it through the washing machine. Unfortunately, washing cycles can degrade the integrity of such a mask and render it useless," she says. You'll also want to make sure you're sanitizing your hands before you take your mask on and off and storing your N95s somewhere clean and dry where they can't be contaminated.

To summarize: Aim to wear your mask no more than five times, store it somewhere safe, watch for wear and tear, and make sure you're sanitizing before you slip it on. Follow these four rules, and you'll be wearing your N95 responsibly, fam.

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