Any big change in our lives brings something new that we could buy. Sometimes it’s just a frivolous marketing ploy from a company hoping to cash in on our anxieties. Other times, we truly need a thing that we didn’t need before–but some of the options on the market are unnecessarily wasteful.
In general, washable things end up costing less per use than disposable things and add less garbage to our landfills.
What about face masks for the coronavirus pandemic?
Are masks just another type of clothing, or do we need masks that we throw away after one use?
Disposable Masks and the Environment
Being able to wash your mask makes it easier to comply with safety guidelines without wasting resources!
This is the #1 reason I’ve continued to wear cloth masks now that disposable masks are available in local stores: I know how I am about making disposable stuff last as long as possible.
If I have to use a tissue rather than a hanky, I’ll carry that tissue in my pocket until I’ve used every bit of it! I’ll refill paper cups, lick off plastic spoons, anything to get more than one use out of something before I throw it away, especially single-use plastic.
That reduces my environmental impact, but it’s not very sanitary.
Pre-pandemic, I figured that this low level of germ exposure was good for my immune system. Right now, though, we need to be more careful.
I’d much rather be careful by washing masks than by making more garbage!
What are Disposable Masks Made From?
Whether a medical mask is blue or some other color, it’s made of a non-woven synthetic fabric, usually polypropylene.1 That’s plastic.
As plastics go, polypropylene seems to be pretty safe…but all plastics release endocrine-disrupting chemicals and can shed micro-particles.2
The New York Times reports that disposable masks have become a litter problem around the world.3
Because disposable masks are plastic, they will never biodegrade. They will kill sea animals and…after 20-30 years…break down into microplastics that will find their way into our food.
Don’t get fooled by sources that say masks will “break down” in 20-30 years total. The plastic doesn’t go back to the earth like a piece of paper or a banana peel would. It persists as microplastics, polluting our planet forever.
The particular shape of this item is a hazard, too: I’ve seen news stories of birds tangled in face mask earloops!
If you use disposable masks, please, please make sure they go into a trash can and stay there! (Snip the ear loops to protect wildlife too.)
This pandemic is temporary (let’s hope!) but plastics last forever.
Polypropylene containers like yogurt tubs are recyclable in some places, but polypropylene fabric is not recyclable.
Don’t put disposable masks in a recycling bin. Put them in a trash can.
How Many Disposable Masks are We Talking Here?
There were 55 million workers considered “essential workers” in the US in 2019.4
Let’s do the math if they were the only people wearing masks, each wearing only 5 disposable masks each week. That’s 275 million masks a week!
(And that’s a pretty conservative number since many people go through more masks per week–for example, health care workers who have to wear a fresh mask for every patient they see–and many who aren’t essential workers are using masks to go shopping or to appointments.)
Using measurements from these masks, let’s see how far the garbage will go…
- It would take 229 million masks to go around the earth’s circumference laid end to end. That is over 20 times around the earth from the beginning of May through the end of August!
- 1,115,888 masks would cover a square mile. That’s 246 square miles of disposable masks used each week! Over 4,000 square miles from May to August. Tie those all together and you’d have a mask island 2/3 the size of the Hawaiian islands!
- Masks are pretty lightweight, but still, 275 million masks a week is over 1 ton of plastic going into a landfill indefinitely…or scattered around in nature or littering our public spaces.
And remember, these numbers are if only essential workers in the United States each wore one disposable mask per weekday!
Many more people are back to work now, and many not counted in the workforce go out in public with disposable masks, including many children at school.
And America isn’t the only country making mask waste. Imagine how these numbers inflate when we add in all the masks being used by the rest of the world!
It’s clear that disposable masks are a burden on our environment, but what about our budget? Kitchen stewards strike a balance…
How to Wear a Face Mask Correctly with Mask C.O.D.E.
Use this memory tool to teach kids (and adults!) how to wear a mask safely and correctly.
Check out the full post for more details and a free pdf download!
Are Disposable Masks Cost-Effective?
A wide array of cloth mask options are available, and prices vary, but many cost about $7 each.
There’s also some variety of disposable masks, with many costing about 26c each when you buy a box of at least 50.
However, the World Economic Forum reported on May 22, “Basic surgical masks that until last year cost a few cents are now retailing at as much as $1.25 each in some places.”5 That happened because the demand was much larger than the supply for a while. Now that manufacturers have caught up but demand is still very high, the price has come down but is still higher than it was in 2019.
To figure out the most cost-effective option, you need to know how many face masks you need.
How Many Cloth Face Masks Do I Need?
Enough that you always have a clean, dry one available when you need it. Make sure to bring an extra if you might sweat a lot or get caught in the rain.
It just makes sense to change your mask at least as often as you change your socks or underwear! A clean one each day, if you’re wearing it for hours at a time.
If you only wear it for a short time once a day or every few days–for example, if the only place you go is the grocery store–you might just hang it up in a place where nobody will touch it, then reuse it for your next outing, a few times in a row. RELATED: How to Take a Safe Mask Break
Consider how often you plan to wash your masks when deciding how many you’ll use in a week.
You can just toss masks into a load of laundry at no additional expense!
Hand-washing takes only a few minutes and a trivial amount of water and soap. Remember that Katie talked about how soap destroys coronaviruses when she covered how to stretch soap to save your budget.
How Often Should I Replace a Disposable Mask?
Not only does a disposable mask need to be replaced in every situation when you’d swap out your washable mask, but it also has to be discarded if it’s damaged at all. While stronger than paper, the lightweight material can tear, come apart at the edge, or pull away from the straps or nose clip pretty easily.
If you keep using the same one for a long time, the material becomes fuzzy-looking and starts to wear thin. (I’ve seen some of this around the neighborhood!)
If you’re relying on disposable masks, always have at least one extra with you, even for a short errand. Make sure to store your spare masks in a clean place.
Cloth Masks vs. Disposable Masks: The Cost Breakdown
These examples estimate on the high side of how many cloth masks one person will need. If you go out less or wash your masks two or three times a week, you can get even more cost savings with cloth masks vs. disposable masks, simply because you’ll need to own a smaller number of masks.
Now let’s look up some numbers and write a story problem!
Amy and Beth both live in a place where masks have been required in all public places since May, and it’s now September. Each of them works 4 days a week in a setting where they can wear the same mask all day. Other than that, they each use 1 mask per week when running errands. Amy uses cloth masks, and Beth uses disposable.
Amy owns 7 cloth masks so that she can be sure of having at least one clean, dry one available at all times.
Beth uses 5 disposable masks per week. They cost $1.25 each in May, $1 each in June, 75c each in July, 50c each in August, and 25c each in September. Every month is a little more than 4 weeks, so let’s say she bought an extra week’s masks in July.
Who has spent more money so far?
Amy’s spending: 7 cloth masks x $7 = $49.
Beth’s spending: (20 masks in May x $1.25) + (20 masks in June x $1) + (25 masks in July x 75c) + (20 masks in August x 50c) + (20 masks in September x 25c) = $24 + $20 + $18.75 + $10 + $5 =$77.75.
So, after 5 months, Beth has spent $28.75 more than Amy. Because of the initially high prices, Beth’s cheap masks cost more than Amy’s investment in reusable masks by the middle of July.
Beth has also now added 105 masks to the landfill forever, with no end in sight–while Amy’s only mask-related garbage has been packaging, if any.
The price of disposable masks may continue to drop, but we know it can’t continue dropping by 25c per month because that would make the masks free in October! As long as disposable masks continue to cost something, Beth will never break even with Amy, unless the pandemic continues long enough that Amy has to replace her cloth masks.
Let’s look at another story problem, using consistent prices.
Carrie and Debbie both have been home almost all the time since March, tying bandanas over their faces on their rare outings. Now both of them are starting new jobs and will be needing 5 masks per week or about 22 masks per month.
Carrie buys 7 cloth masks for $7 each.
Debbie buys disposable masks at 26c each.
How many months will it take for them to have spent the same amount?
Carrie’s spending: 7 cloth masks x $7 = $49.
Debbie’s spending per month: 22 disposable masks x 26c = $5.72.
$49 / $5.72 = 8.566 months.
Basically, which type of mask is the more economical choice depends on how long you will be wearing them.
Carrie’s cloth masks are likely to hold up for more than 9 months, so she could break even if the pandemic doesn’t clear up in their area until next summer. Carrie could also easily save money by buying only 4 cloth masks and washing them every other day.
What about if you only go out once or twice a week to run errands? How long will it take you to break even if you purchase a cloth mask?
Shelly stays home with her kids, only going out to grocery shop once a week and occasionally a second trip to run errands. She calculates that she only uses 6 masks per month.
26c per disposable mask x 6 = $1.56 per month.
Since Shelly needs a mask only once or twice a week for short outings, she has plenty of time to wash and dry it weekly and only needs 1 cloth mask = $7.
Divide the $7 cloth mask price by the $1.56 per month for disposable masks = 4.49 months for Shelly to start saving money by choosing cloth over disposable.
I hate to say it, but I’m assuming we’re going to be masked for several more months at least. Cloth masks are likely to be a better value in the long run.
Note from Katie: One of my team members mentioned that she made her husband’s cloth masks. She spent less than $20 on materials for 7 masks. If you used scrap fabric you already own it would be even cheaper, maybe even free! If you happen to sew, this is a very frugal option, although it will take more time up front.
Katie mentioned that because of her kids’ dust allergies, multiple loads of sheets go through the hot wash each week, so it’s easy to keep up even on daily wear with just a few masks–and they’re not using any extra water, detergent, or time to wash masks! In my family, we’re no longer on the four-day laundry routine but doing laundry “as needed” and mostly in cold water–so washing masks by hand works well for us. We use hot water and plant-based dish detergent.
If you get the heebie jeebies thinking that cloth masks might not get clean enough from home laundering, consider this: Surgical masks are NOT sterile either. At least when you get a new cloth mask, you can wash it and have some sense of control over the cleanliness of what’s touching your face!
These child-sized organic masks from Etsy are what Katie bought for some of her kids, and Gabe loves the fit.
But the long-term financial savings aren’t the main reason I prefer cloth. There’s also the environmental issue and one other thing:
I’d Rather Wear Extra Clothing than Garbage!
This is what it comes down to, for me: Putting on a face mask just feels better when it’s like putting on a scarf or a sun hat–dressing for the weather of pandemic season!–than when it’s like wrapping some kind of package around myself.
At first, I wasn’t going out much, but in early August I started working as a Census enumerator–the person who comes to the door of households that didn’t complete the Census online earlier in the year, to interview them and enter their data into a secure customized smartphone.
I was hired to start work in early April, but of course, that was delayed! When I finally got the call about when and where to report for training, they said, “PPE will be provided.”
I worried that they’d require me to make a big pile of garbage….
Instead, the Census gave me 4 reusable cloth masks. They are this kind or very similar: Fabric that feels like a heavy-duty T-shirt. They’re pretty comfortable for hours at a stretch, even on very hot and humid days!
I do notice the steaminess of my breathing and feel that my face is sweatier than it would be if exposed to the breeze–but the moisture soaks into the fabric and then evaporates without making the fabric really wet.
I’ve worn cloth masks 20-30 hours a week for a month with no skin irritation at all.
My favorite thing about these masks is that (at least on my face) they stay put over the nose and cheekbones but are a bit loose over the chin, allowing me to talk a lot without shifting the mask out of place! That’s very important because I’m talking a lot when I interview people!
The Comfort Factor of Cloth Masks vs. Disposable Masks
As I was writing this article, I realized that I hadn’t worn a disposable mask during the pandemic–maybe not since volunteering with Ballots for Patients in 2016! I really should give them a fair trial, right?
I bought a box of disposable masks in August at my 15-year-old son’s request. He’s been good at remembering to wash his masks regularly, but sometimes he doesn’t get around to it until all of them are dirty, and then he suddenly decides to go out when none of his masks is quite dry. Instead of struggling to dry one with a hairdryer, he wanted to have the option of wearing a disposable mask in that situation.
I wore a disposable mask for two hours while I was sitting at my computer on a not-hot day.
Then I read the story problems aloud to my family with the mask on. That much talking caused the disposable mask to slide at least half an inch down my nose, enough that I really had to adjust it to prevent my nose popping out, so this type of mask would not be good for Census work, church, or an outdoor visit with a friend.
Also, the sensory experience of wearing a disposable mask was unpleasant. It had a chemical odor that was slight, yet I never stopped noticing it and gradually developed a mild headache and nausea.
It felt a little icky against my skin at first, then gradually worse with time and worse when I created friction by talking.
By the time I took it off, my face felt sunburned, although it looked only a tiny bit pink. Now I’ve had the mask off for 20 minutes, but I’m still putting my hands against my face repeatedly because–although it’s 74 degrees F in my house and my hands aren’t cold–they feel cooler than my face. (Update: It took about 2 hours for the burning to go away.)
I think I’ll stick to plastic-wrapping my face only in emergencies!
Cloth masks are better for the environment, may be better for your skin, and are cheaper in the long run!
What About the Disclaimers on Cloth Masks?
“But wait!” you may be thinking, “Why do ads for cloth masks say, The mask is not FDA-approved, not intended for medical use, and not proven to reduce the transmission of disease?”
This disclaimer doesn’t mean the mask doesn’t work.
It means that it hasn’t gone through the complex, time-consuming processes of a research study to determine the disease-suppression abilities and to secure FDA approval for this particular mask design. We just haven’t had time for anything like that to happen.
Cloth masks are marked “not intended for medical use” because disposable masks are required in medical settings. That’s the policy because health care workers’ masks can get contaminated with blood droplets and other infectious substances; COVID-19 is not the only illness out there!
An article in The Lancet suggests that hospitals’ transition from professionally manufactured, sterilized, and reused cloth masks to disposable masks may have been less about safety than about reducing labor costs:
In 1975, in one of the last studies to include an industrially manufactured cotton mask, the author concluded that the reusable mask, made of four-ply cotton muslin, was superior to the popular disposable paper masks and the new synthetic respirators. He noted that “cotton fabrics may be as effective as synthetic fabrics when incorporated in a good mask design”. Some studies have suggested that washing reusable masks might increase their bacterial filtering efficiency, perhaps by tightening their fibres.6
Note from Katie: A friend of mine who works in healthcare noted that when PPE suddenly became scarce, it was suddenly acceptable to use reusable instead of disposable, but there seems to be no increase in general infections due to the switch. He agrees that hospitals use disposable rather than reusable PPE because of labor costs, not because disposables are somehow safer.
Additionally, if you’re a PPE company, which makes more money for you: selling reusables or disposables that need to be repurchased frequently? There appear to be reasons other than research-based safety concerns why so many disposable items are used in healthcare facilities!
To my surprise, the box of disposable masks I bought at Costco also has a lot of disclaimers, including these:
- These masks do not eliminate the risk of contracting any disease or infection, nor reduce the risk of illness or death.
- This product has not been FDA cleared or approved.
- This product is authorized only for the duration of the declaration that circumstances exist justifying the authorization of the emergency use of medical devices, including alternative products used as medical devices, during the COVID-19 outbreak, under section 564(b)(1) of the Act, 21 U.S.C. 360bbb-3(b)(1) unless the authorization is terminated or revoked sooner.
As with hand sanitizer, masks that are being sold in the United States during this time of national emergency are held to looser standards than normal, because manufacturers need to get safety products to the people without being tied up in a lot of red tape.
That’s important in a way, yet it also opens up the possibility that unscrupulous companies will sell products that are not really effective or could be actually dangerous. This risk applies to both disposable and cloth masks.
The bottom line is that, in many places at this time, we are required to cover our mouths and noses.
We all need to decide what type of mask will work best for our face shape, our activities, our budget, and our environment–and then use it as safely as we can.
- Henneberry, B. (n.d.). How Surgical Masks are Made. Retrieved from https://www.thomasnet.com/articles/other/how-surgical-masks-are-made/
- Pratt, E. (2018, March 30). You’re Likely Ingesting Plastic from Your Water, Food, Toys, and Cosmetics. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health-news/ingesting-plastic-from-water-food-toys-cosmetics
- Fazio, M. (2020, July 25). Your Used Mask Needs to Make It to the Trash Can. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/25/climate/covid-masks-discarded.html
- McNicholas, C. & Poydock, M. (2020, May 19). Who are essential workers? [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.epi.org/blog/who-are-essential-workers-a-comprehensive-look-at-their-wages-demographics-and-unionization-rates/
- Broom, D. (2020, May 22). Coronavirus: here’s what you need to know about face masks. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/05/coronavirus-face-masks-rules-supply/
- Strasser, B. & Schlich, T. (2020, July 4). A history of the medical mask and the rise of throwaway culture. The Art of Medicine, 396(10243), 19-20. Retrieved from https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)31207-1/fulltext