Can PPE Be Reused / Washed / Shared?

When it comes to COVID-19, scientists are still determining the role that Personal Protective Equipment or “PPE” plays in fighting the virus. 

The scientific consensus, including that of the CDC, suggests that wearing PPE saves lives and limits the spread of disease. In fact, one study focusing on global healthcare estimated that universal mask-wearing could save upwards of 130,000 lives. 

Even if you know that PPE is good, there are many options. And that makes it hard to determine which masks are best for your needs. 

When the pandemic first hit, PPE was in short supply for hospitals, medical clinics and laboratories. This necessitated the reuse of masks, which created risks for doctors and nurses. 

That’s because the respirator masks (like the FDA-approved N95 respirator) offer the greatest level of protection. Originally, these masks were recommended only for doctors because of the shortage. But, the N95 respirator, which is NIOSH approved (the gold-standard for safety verification), provides the most safety for everyone.

Good Mask Co. Cup Shaped N95 Respirator

But, if you don’t have an N95 respirator mask or are wondering about the safety of your own mask, you might be wondering what limitations exist. Whether we’re in a pandemic or not, masks will continue to be part of your defense against viruses. So, it’s important for you to know how to make the best use of personal protective equipment. 

Before you purchase PPE for yourself, your family, or your employees it’s likely that you have several questions. How much can you reuse a cloth mask? Can it be washed? Should it be shared? And, if you reuse a mask, how much protection does it really provide?

This article talks you through the following:

  • What is PPE?
  • Can PPE be reused?
  • Can disposable PPE be washed?
  • Can PPE be shared?

What is PPE?

PPE is an acronym for Personal Protective Equipment. PPE works as a barrier to protect you, the wearer of the mask, and those around you from germs, bacteria, and viral particles, which can all lead to a number of infectious diseases, such as COVID-19. 

PPE has become more important than ever since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. When PPE is used in conjunction with sanitary practices such as regular hand-washing, using alcohol-based hand sanitizers, and physical distancing, it effectively minimizes the spread of COVID-19. 

If you want to make the most of PPE, it’s important that the wearer ensures it covers their nose and mouth. That’s because most viruses spread the pathogen through little droplets. And those droplets, when airborne, are most likely to infect someone when inhaled through the nose or mouth. 

While it’s easy to think of personal protective equipment just as face masks, PPE is anything that helps with disease control. So, PPE is a broad categorization that includes eye protection, disposable gloves, respirators, goggles, hand hygiene, coveralls and face shields. 

Can PPE be Reused?

man wearing 3-ply mask and plastic face shield

The short answer is, “it’s not supposed to be reused.”

The long answer (and the truth for many doctors and first responders who are not being provided sufficient PPE) is that PPE is being reused, even if it’s not supposed to be.

There are exceptions to the rule. Reusable PPE is usually made of hard plastics that can be disinfected, such as safety glasses or face shields. But, they’re only reusable if you use the proper disinfectant and protocol.

Most public health research focuses on PPE that’s disposable, such as 3-ply face masks, disposable gowns, and lab coats that are designed for single-use. Guidelines from the FDA make it clear that the safest approach is to limit both reuse and sharing of PPE.

That said, during the coronavirus pandemic, things aren’t “normal” and there may be circumstances where wearing a face mask more than once is necessary. 

While reusing PPE in these circumstances increases the risk of exposure and transmission of COVID-19, sometimes it’s unavoidable. 
If that’s the case for you, here are the current best practice guidelines for respirator re-use during a workday as a last resort:

  • Bring multiple respirators with you in a clean plastic bag.
  • Bring a ziplock bag with you marked “used.”
  • Each time your respirator is removed or touched, place it in the “used” bag and put on a clean respirator.
  • At the end of the day, carefully place your used masks in direct sunlight (the dashboard of a car is a popular spot).
  • Leave the respirators in direct sunlight for three days, and place back into a clean plastic bag for reuse.
  • If any part of the respirator becomes damaged at any point (an ear loop falls off, the nose piece breaks, there’s visible dirt or makeup inside or outside of the mask) dispose of it.

If you are buying PPE for your business or organization, it is important that workers are informed on how to safely discard all personal protective equipment following use to ensure that pathogens don’t spread in unintended ways. A simple rule of thumb is to follow basic hygiene rules. After you remove your mask, dispose of it without putting it on another surface and wash your hands.

Can Disposable PPE be Washed? What About Cloth?

If you want the best use of PPE, it is not advised to wash equipment that was designed to be disposable. The FDA and CDC both recommend limiting the reuse of respirators because of their design. If you reuse PPE that was not designed for multiple uses or wash them, then the barrier and protective abilities are reduced, which makes it less effective for the wearer. 

The WHO (World Health Organization) commented on the matter; “Replace the mask with a new one as soon as it is damp and do not reuse single-use masks.”

Disposable, single-use masks are, as the name suggests, for one single use. 

If you have a cloth mask, it’s a better last resort than a face shield. While fabric masks don’t provide the same level of protection, they are a viable alternative. 

Cloth masks are washable and should be treated as such. If you use them, the recommendation is to wash them every day either in a washing machine or hand wash. When done cleaning, you can place them in a dryer on a hot setting or air dry them in the sun.

Can PPE be shared?

Most PPE cannot be reused or shared. The vast majority of Personal Protective Equipment is designed exclusively for single-use, such as disposable shoe covers, isolation gowns, 3-ply face masks, disposable respirators, and latex gloves. 

Exceptions can be made in certain circumstances, for example if eye goggles are disinfected thoroughly and correctly. If they are disinfected per the outlined product instructions, they can be shared safely amongst healthcare staff working in a clinic, hospital, or laboratory.

Disposable PPE masks, in particular, should never ever be shared. 

As per the World Health Organization guidelines ‘Masks should only be used by one person and should not be shared.’ 

For more information on face masks and their benefits, read our previous blog post: PPE 101: A Guide To What You Need For COVID-19

Cover photo by Brett Sayles from Pexels.