How to Reuse Personal Protective Equipment

Although most personal protective equipment (PPE) is single-use only, recent challenges have prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to publish guidelines and strategies on optimizing PPE supplies in the event of a shortage.

Part of these strategies includes guidelines and methods on how to reuse PPE, which types of PPE you can safely reuse, and what you can do to clean, maintain, or prepare specific PPE types for reuse.

Eye Protection

Eye protection includes items such as plastic safety glasses, goggles, and face shields. These types of PPE typically employ easily cleaned and disinfected synthetic materials, such as polycarbonate (PC) or polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

To clean eye protection equipment of any type, follow these steps:

  • Don a pair of medical-grade disposable gloves.
  • Use a disinfecting wipe or apply a neutral detergent solution to a clean cloth, then use it to wipe the inside of the mask or goggles.
  • Use a disinfecting wipe or apply an EPA-registered disinfectant solution to a clean cloth, then use it to wipe the outside of the mask or goggles.
  • Use disposable absorbent towels to dry the goggles.
  • Doff the disposable gloves as per the CDC guidelines, then wash your hands.

Face Masks and Respirators

The type of face mask determines whether you can reuse it, and if possible, what methods you can use to wash and reuse them.

Cloth masks

The CDC recommends that if you use a cloth mask (e.g., for double-masking), you should wash it once after each use and switch to a different one if it becomes contaminated.

The cleaning procedure for cloth masks is as follows:

  • Don a pair of medical-grade disposable gloves.
  • Avoid shaking the mask, as it may spread contaminants.
  • Wash your face mask using either a washing machine or hand washing.
    • Machine washing: Use the highest water temperature setting and standard laundry detergent.
    • Hand washing: Prepare a bleach solution (⅓ cup of disinfecting household bleach in 1 gallon of room temperature water), soak the mask for 5 minutes in the solution, then rinse it with cold water
  • Doff your gloves and practice hand hygiene.
  • Dry your mask in a dryer set to the highest temperature setting.

Inspect your mask after cleaning. If it has developed holes, tears, or signs of damage, mend it if possible, or dispose of it.

Surgical masks and respirators

Although surgical face masks and respirators such as the N95 and KN95 cannot be washed once contaminated, you can extend their use by following the proper inspection and storage procedures.

You can wear a standard 3-ply surgical face mask continuously for an indefinite period, unless in the following scenarios:

  • The mask is visibly soiled or dirtied by bodily fluids or potential contaminants
  • The mask is moist to the touch due to repeated exposure to respiration, even if it is only on one side.

Although you should not wear an N95 or KN95 respirator for more than 8 hours at a time, you may continue using it unless:

  • You cannot breathe easily through the mask anymore (suggesting the respirator may be clogged or contaminated)
  • The inside of the respirator is dirty, moist, or exposed to potential contaminants

If your mask or respirator does not meet any of these disqualifying conditions, you may store it for later reuse by placing it inside a clean, sealable container, such as a paper bag or a plastic box.

When storing surgical masks this way, fold the mask inward, so the outer surface is held against itself. Consider labeling the container with the owner’s name to avoid redistributing the wrong masks.

Medical Gowns

Medical and infection control gowns are divided into two categories: disposable gowns made of 100% synthetic materials, such as SMS material, polypropylene, or polyethylene; and washable cloth gowns made of a blend of natural and synthetic materials, typically cotton-polyester.

100% synthetic gowns

Disposable gowns (such as those used in general-purpose patient care) should never be washed nor reused. Instead, you should dispose of them the same way as other waste PPE: throw them into the trash immediately after use.

To preserve public health more effectively and avoid spreading contaminants into the garbage disposal system, place your used disposable gowns in a labeled biohazard bag before throwing them away.

Cloth gowns

Cloth gowns can be washed and reused, provided you follow the proper cleaning procedure:

  • Don medical-grade disposable gloves.
  • Avoid shaking or roughly handling the gowns to prevent the spread of contaminants.
  • Machine wash the gowns on the highest temperature setting with disinfecting detergent.
  • Doff your gloves and practice hand hygiene.
  • Machine dry the gowns on the highest temperature setting.
  • Inspect the gowns for signs of damage, such as holes, tears, or undone seams. Repair if possible or retire from service.
  • Store the gowns in a clean, designated container or storage area.

Although most cloth gowns are made using specific manufacturing techniques and chemical treatments to improve their resistance against contaminants, each washing cycle progressively degrades the gown’s protective characteristics.

Consequently, even washable medical gowns should be considered semi-consumables. Each gown model comes with a maximum recommended number of washing cycles.

It is critical to keep track of the number of times each gown has been washed. Once a particular gown has reached the manufacturer’s recommended washing cycle limit, you must dispose of it using the same methods as with synthetic disposable gloves.

After disposal, replace as necessary with a new gown.

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