Coronavirus: Sanitize your mask in your... slow cooker?

Coronavirus: Sanitize your mask in your... slow cooker?
(Image via Bob Cotter/Flickr)

Quarantined life in the midst of COVID-19 means more home-cooked meals for many people.

And venturing out in public generally means grabbing your mask before you leave the house, as most big businesses require customers to wear them before entering facilities.

But what if you’re running low on masks? Can you cook up a solution?

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According to researchers at the University of Illinois, electric cooking machines can be used to clean N95 face masks.

A team of scientists from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign conducted a study and found that “50 minutes of dry heat in an electric cooker, such as a rice cooker or Instant Pot, decontaminated N95 respirators inside and out while maintaining their filtration and fit.”

The researchers noted the option would allow people to reuse N95 masks, intended for one-time use, when they’re in limited supply.

While many people have been using all types of face coverings, a University of Illinois blog post on the study called N95 respirator masks “the gold standard of personal protective equipment.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised people to wear masks in public since April, noting that the coronavirus mainly spreads from person to person through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, talks or raises their voice. Wearing face coverings prevents the spread of those droplets.

The agency also recommends the use of masks among those who don’t have any symptoms of the virus, as the number of confirmed cases within asymptomatic people has been increasing significantly.

“A mask may not protect the wearer, but it may keep the wearer from spreading the virus to others,” the CDC affirmed.

The agency has asked civilians to not hoard surgical masks or respirator masks, like N95 masks, as those are “critical supplies that should continue to be reserved for healthcare workers and other medical first responders.”

“A cloth mask or surgical mask protects others from droplets the wearer might expel, but a respirator mask protects the wearer by filtering out smaller particles that might carry the virus,” said UI environmental engineering professor Thanh Nguyen, who co-authored the study on dry heat as a decontamination method for N95 masks.

According to Nguyen and the study’s co-author, Vishal Verman, “one cooking cycle, which maintains the contents of the cooker at around ... 212 degrees Fahrenheit for 50 minutes, decontaminated the masks inside and out from four different classes of virus, including a coronavirus, and did so more effectively than ultraviolet light.”

“There are many different ways to sterilize something, but most of them will destroy the filtration or the fit of an N95 respirator,” Verma said. “Any sanitation method would need to decontaminate all surfaces of the respirator, but equally important is maintaining the filtration efficacy and the fit of the respirator to the face of the wearer. Otherwise, it will not offer the right protection.”

The two researchers said they discovered N95 masks maintained their filtration capacity of more than 95% and kept their fit, still properly seated on the wearer’s face, even after 20 cycles of decontamination in the electric cooker.

They said the cleaning method could be helpful for health care workers, especially those at smaller clinics, who don’t have access to excess masks or sanitation equipment. It’s also helpful for people who may already have N95 masks at home.

Whether the method can be used on cloth face coverings hasn’t been researched, but the CDC says those can be cleaned by hand or in a regular washing machine.