Cleaning During COVID-19: Masks, Car, Phone, Shoes

Written by Faith Christensen, ND

COVID-19 needs to enter the body through the nose, eyes, or mouth. If you keep your hands clean and don’t touch your face, you are unlikely to get COVID-19. Since the virus is invisible to the human eye, it is hard to “see” surfaces that might have a higher concentration of COVID-19. There are three areas to address when going out in public.

COVID-19 is spread through respiratory droplets. Those droplets go out into the air and then drop onto surfaces below. A 2007 study found large respiratory droplets can travel:

  • Breathing–3 feet
  • Coughing– 6 feet
  • Sneezing—19 feet

These have not been tested specifically for COVID-19 but more in general for respiratory droplets, the droplets COVID-19 travels on. The distance respiratory droplets travel is the reason for physical distancing. Masks are a great way of minimizing respiratory droplet spread. Respiratory droplets accumulate on surfaces 3 feet or more around a person not wearing a mask. This makes the floor and parking lots of most businesses a potential high concentration zone.

Image by Juraj Varga from Pixabay

Clean vs Dirty Mask

We are all told to wear a mask, but what are good practices? Below are a few points to keep in mind when wearing a mask. Here is what the CDC is saying about cloth mask hygiene.

 Wash your hands before putting on a mask

 Make sure you are using a clean mask

  • N95 masks are not rated to be used over 8 hrs and for no more than an hour before taking a break. These are still not recommended for the general public. Cleaning them with sanitizer breaks down the fibers. As the fiber degrades more particles can enter through the mask. Baking the N95 mask breaks down the elastic decreasing the tight fit and causing it to be less effective.
  • Cloth Masks: Cloth masks are generally worn to protect other people. However, The type of fabric used for the mask (cotton, flannel, silk) can block viral particles by 25-95% with a tight-fitting cloth mask. (Read more)Cotton/flannel, cotton/chiffon, cotton/silk all showed over 95% effective in filtering particles under 3 microns (the size of the COVID-19 virus) if the mask is not gapping. If the mask gaps the effectiveness goes to 30%-50%.(Link to article) Cloth masks should be worn one time and then washed.  
  • Disposable medical masks: These masks are designed to be single-use. Blue or green side goes toward the outside. Do not use them more than once.

Put it on and don’t touch it again. Part of the benefit of the mask is to prevent you from touching your nose or mouth with hands that may not be clean. Once you’ve put on your mask with clean hands make sure it is fitting tightly and comfortably. Don’t touch it again until you are ready to take it off. As you breathe through a mask, the outside surface of the mask is collecting particles floating in the air. So think of the outside of the mask, the part other people see and you would touch with your hands as contaminated. Another reason to not touch your mask once you’ve been wearing it for a while.

Wash your hands before taking off your mask. Make sure your hands are clean before taking off your mask. It is easy to touch your face as you take off the mask, so make sure your hands are clean. Do not touch the inside of the mask (the part over nose and mouth). It may be contaminated from your breathing, coughing, or sneezing.

Throw away disposable masks and place cloth masks immediately in the washing mashing after each outing.

Wash your hands again since you were touching a dirty mask.

Do masks cause health problems?

There has been some argument about masks causing disease. This applies only to masks being worn repeatedly without proper cleaning or for long periods. There are also social media posts claiming that wearing a mask can cause a decrease in oxygen getting into the body and an increase in breathing carbon dioxide. The only concern for both of these conditions is when people wear a tight-fitting N95 respirator mask for an extended period usually over 1 hr without a break. Surgical and cloth masks do not fit tight enough to decrease oxygen or increase carbon dioxide.  

The CDC recommends the following exceptions for wearing a mask: “Cloth face coverings should not be placed on young children under age 2, anyone who has trouble breathing, or is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.”

Removing shoes before entering the house

Since respiratory droplets fall to the ground, the floor in most stores is going to potentially have the highest concentration of viral particles. Make sure to take your shoes off before you enter your house or wipe the bottom of your shoes with disinfecting wipes.

Also, research shows one of the main exposures to outside pollution both man made and seasonal allergies inside the house is brought in by wearing your shoes around the house. It makes sense during the pandemic and in general to leave any outside pollution or possible viruses outside of your house. Not a fan of walking around barefoot in your house? Designate house shoes to wear only in the house.

Car exposure

The car is another area where cleanliness is important during a pandemic. Make sure to have hand sanitizer in the car to clean your hands after going into the store. Wipe down frequently touched surfaces like the steering wheel, door handle, stick shift, radio and fan knobs, and seat belts. Make sure what you are using is made for those surfaces to avoid damage to your car interior.

Building on the idea that respiratory droplets fall toward the ground and accumulate on the ground. The floor of the car will potentially have more exposure due to your shoes as discussed above. If something like your phone or keys fall on the floor, wipe them down with a disinfecting wipe before using it.

If you are taking your mask off and on between stores, be sure to sanitize your hands before and after you take it off and before you put it back on. 

Wherever you are laying the mask when you have it off in the car, make sure to have the outside surface resting on the seat of the car to keep the part of the mask that will be closest to your face clean. Also, remember the mask is filtering particles and the outside of the mask will have a higher concentration of whatever is in the air on the surface. Make sure to wipe down the seating area where you have laid your mask. Some people just find it easier to consider the car an un-clean environment and to keep the mask on during the entirety of running errands and only take the mask off once they return home. This will work for short trips but for longer trips over 5 hrs, you need a break. 

Phone Cleanliness

Phones can do so much these days, it is easy to pull them out and use them in the grocery store, in the car (not while driving) or when you are out of the house. Studies have shown smart phones are one of the dirtiest items in your house. During the pandemic, sanitize your phone after any use when you are out of your house and you haven’t washed your hands before picking it up. I’ve started leaving my phone in the car when I go to the grocery store to keep it clean and then I don’t have to think about when I last touched my phone. Bring in your list on paper—old school. 

 Cleaning your phone is easy:

  • Click here for a short video about phone cleaning with soap and water.
  • Use a 70% alcohol solution (vodka is about 70%) or isopropyl alcohol wipes. 
  • Wipe down all the surfaces and let it sit for 10 seconds as the alcohol dries out any viral particles. Think of it as a hand sanitizer for your phone. Using hand sanitizer or disinfecting wipes can affect the phone cover and is not recommended for use on electronics. The 70% alcohol solution doesn’t damage your phone according to studies.
  • Remember if you use your phone while wearing a mask and it touches your mask, you need to wipe down your phone.
  • At home, it is a good idea to clean your phone once a day

All of this leaving you a bit overwhelmed?

Focus on areas where you think your potential for exposure is higher. Getting into the habit of removing your shoes before entering your house, is helpful for lots of reasons. Wearing a clean mask helps you and those around you.

Remember the only way we know right now to get COVID-19 is the virus entering the eyes, nose, or mouth. Paying attention to what your hands have touched and clean them often by washing for 20 seconds with soapy water or using hand sanitizer when you can’t wash them is the best form of prevention. Make it a habit of washing your hands before you eat, apply makeup, rub your eyes, or need to scratch that itch on your face.

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