There are both visible and non-visible issues to be aware of.

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Woman in the city wearing face mask and holding cell phone
Credit: Luis Alvarez / Getty Images

In addition to social distancing (or staying six feet apart) and hand-washing, wearing a protective face mask is one of the recommended ways to protect yourself and others from the spread of COVID-19. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes, these masks are helpful to prevent respiratory droplets from getting on others when you sneeze, speak, or socialize. But as quarantine continues, the covering you have been wearing for months on end might actually need to be replaced. Ahead, we share expert-suggested signs that it's time to replace your face mask—if you start noticing any of these, it's time for a new covering.

Visible Signs

When choosing a face mask, it's important to make sure it fits properly. Dr. Anthony Harris, MD, MBA, MPH, the chief innovation officer and associate medical director for WorkCare, says that you need to make sure your personal protective equipment (PPE) covers the nose and the mouth fully. For those who have facial hair, he adds that you will need to be mindful that there aren't gaps around your masks so you can still stay protected. If that fit is no longer optimal, it's time for a new mask.

And even if the fit is still correct, there are other signs that a mask needs to be replaced. "Masks should be replaced—paper or fabric—if they are notably soiled or have become substantially wet," Dr. Harris says of other visible signs to note. "Such soilage or heavy moisture can decrease the efficacy of the mask for protecting both the wearer and others." Plus, you should replace face masks if there are tears, if the material is warped, or if the mask is stretched out.

Non-Visible Signs

You should also buy or make a new face mask if you feel any COVID-like symptoms during the pandemic. Dr. Nasia Safdar, MD, PhD, and professor of infectious disease at the University of Wisconsin, says that if you are experiencing respiratory symptoms, you will need to throw away your mask and replace it. If you come in contact with someone who is COVID positive, Dr. Harris says you can replace the face mask. However, you can also take a few steps to preserve it in this case unless it is otherwise visibly soiled. "Face masks that have been worn for a substantial amount of time in close proximity with individuals positive for COVID-19 should be properly removed and safely stored in a paper bag (which allows air to flow over the mask eliminating virus particles) for 72 hours before wearing the mask again," he says. Dr. Harris does say you will need to use a different mask while this one is being stored. He advises that if the mask is made of cloth that you wore while being exposed to someone with COVID-19, you can wash in normal household detergent and dry completely before wearing it again.  

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