How long can I safely wear an N95 before it no longer protects me?
An N95 mask provides strong protection against COVID and other viruses. But how long will the mask continue to work effectively?
The answer depends on several factors. The better you take care of your mask, the longer it will last. However, there does come a point when the mask should be thrown away as it is no longer useful.
This may come as a surprise for those who have heard that N95 masks are often single-use items in hospital and industrial settings. And while that is true for many hospitals, clinics, and medical facilities, there is a strong difference between wearing the mask when surrounded by COVID patients or wearing it at work vs. wearing the mask for personal use to protect yourself from viruses or wildfire smoke.
The N95 mask will last for more than one use when in lower-risk environments. But when should you consider throwing the mask away?
The key to the N95 mask is its filtration system. The mask will trap the particles that carry viruses while still letting the air through. If the filtration system is working and the fit is not compromised, the mask is still usable for personal use. To keep the filtration system working, you will need to do the following.
- Do not handle the mask roughly to avoid creating large holes or causing the straps to snap off
- Do Not Try to Clean the Mask
- Do Not Expose the Mask to Excessive Moisture.
In other words, rough handling can damage the masks. Also any attempt to clean the mask using soap and water, hand sanitizer, bleach, or other liquid will breakdown the filtration system.
Straps Continue to Work and Fit is Strong
If the straps continue to hold the mask firmly to your face, then you can keep using the mask. An N95 mask does little good if it allows air in through the sides. So, when the straps start to loosen or the mask no longer holds tightly to your face, you should ditch the mask.
You can check your masks fit by performing a seal check. We’ve included instructions for the seal test in our mask size guide linked to here.
Please note that a seal check is not a substitute for a professional mask fitting for medical employees, those using an N95 mask in an occupational setting, or where available for the public.
There is no hard and fast rule, but five uses of the mask for personal use is generally considered the right number under most circumstances.
This assumes that the mask itself is exposed under normal conditions such as traveling on a bus or subway or running errands. If a mask is being used for occupational purposes it will need to be changed more often.
Often the straps slowly loosening and providing less of a seal, will take place before the filtration capabilities diminish, so please keep an eye on this very important detail. A tight seal is vital to the mask working properly.
Additionally, it is important for the mask to get very wet, as the electrostatic properties which offer protection from the virus will be diminished by the mask being wet. If you get soaked in a downpour, you should go ahead and change your mask.
As always, use your best judgment, and when in doubt, grab a fresh mask