Do Face Mask Sprays Actually Work To Protect Against The Coronavirus?

Retailers sell disinfectant sprays that claim to kill germs and eliminate odor, but do they work as well as simply washing? And could they be harmful to our health?

As cleanliness continues to be a priority amid the COVID-19 pandemic, face mask sprays that tout varying degrees of odor elimination and disinfection have joined the group of products we feel pressured to buy.

Lifestyle brands like Spinster Sisters, Uncommon Goods and Way of Will, major retailers such as Amazon and Walmart, and small businesses on Etsy have all started selling mask sprays, intended for use on cloth face coverings. Different sprays make different assertions about how they’ll improve your face covering ― some claim to be antimicrobial and antibacterial, while others bill themselves as a refresher and deodorizer. Of course a pumpkin-spice mask spray exists, as do ones that’ll make your face covering smell like sugar cookies or a margarita.

Many sprays are made with just essential oils and water, while others include alcohols that can kill the coronavirus ― but according to the experts HuffPost spoke with, some virus-killing ingredients can be hazardous to your respiratory health.

Not to mention, this is a new, unregulated marketplace that can’t guarantee effectiveness. These sprays could also be breaking down the fibers of a cloth mask, and thus the barrier to potential coronavirus exposure.

Different sprays make different assertions about how they’ll improve your face covering. But do they work?
Zephyr18 via Getty Images
Different sprays make different assertions about how they’ll improve your face covering. But do they work?

Take a close look at the ingredients list

The word “disinfectant” on a mask spray label indicates it actually kills bacteria. University of Washington professor of environmental and occupational health sciences Scott Meschke told HuffPost that a “true disinfectant” would be regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. If the agency finds the compound effective against the coronavirus, it will be featured on the EPA’s List N.

Mask sprays that don’t outright call themselves disinfectants don’t require the same government oversight, and therefore “we don’t necessarily know what’s in them because of that lack of regulation,” said University of Florida epidemiologist Cindy Prins.

However, while List N includes ingredients that may kill the coronavirus, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re safe for you to inhale. One such ingredient on the list is hypochlorous acid, which Meschke described as “a bleach solution where it’s not actually bleaching” (it can be found in ULV500 Face Mask Spray). You should avoid sprays that include bleach, which can degrade the mask’s cloth — and it should go without saying that “bleach is not good for your lungs,” Prins said.

Another ingredient on List N is benzalkonium chloride (found in Sowl Mask Shield + Sanitizer and Advanced Moisturizer Spray), a chemical that kills the coronavirus but is not recommended for face masks. “I certainly would tell people not to put it on their masks,” Prins said. “When we use these compounds to clean in a health care setting, we try to minimize people’s respiratory exposure. That’s probably not the safest thing to do, to put it on your mask.”

An additional ingredient on List N that should be avoided in high amounts is ethanol (aka ethyl alcohol). At around a 70% concentration, it eliminates virus particles (it can be found it Cavere Naturally Derived Face Mask Sanitizing Cleanser Spray and Ttoma Face Mask and Hand Sanitizer Spray). But in order for it to be effective, Prins notes, “you would have to do the equivalent of dipping your mask in alcohol,” so the spray itself might not be sufficient. Plus, “you don’t want to wet [your mask] down and put it against your skin — then you’re breathing alcohol,” she said.

Ultimately, “things that kill the virus aren’t particularly good for you to be breathing,” Meschke said.

You should also be wary of ingredients that kill odor-causing bacteria. Meschke named hydrogen peroxide (found in Bee Well Mask Spray) and ozone (found in air sanitizers like Ozium) as two chemicals that could fight odor on your mask, but she warned that both are “something you don’t want to breathe a lot.”

And again, due to the lack of regulation, we don’t know exactly how these odor-eliminating sprays do their job. “Some capture the odor particles and disperse it out. Others might just sit on top of it,” said Grace Jun, assistant professor of fashion at the Parsons School of Design and CEO of Open Style Lab. “It’s not like odor magically disappears when you spray it. It starts to absorb.”

Many ingredients can degrade the material of your mask

All chemicals and oils will eventually wear out the fabric of your mask, possibly making it less effective against the virus. “When you put moisture on any type of material, it’s going to wear down,” Jun said.

The type of fabric the mask is made of will inform exactly how quickly the spray breaks it down. However, “there’s so many different mask configurations out there and so many different disinfectants, most of the combinations haven’t even been [tested],” Meschke said. “It’s the Wild West.”

Along with fabric composition, how long you wear the mask, and in what capacity, plays a role in how fast it could degrade. “If you’re a front-line care worker and you’re using it more hours than the average person, that would deteriorate much quicker than the everyday person who’s going to wear it to go to Whole Foods for a bit,” Jun explained.

The key is to stock up on plenty of masks, wash them regularly and replace them with new ones when necessary.

So should we all use mask sprays or not?

To feel comfortable recommending mask sprays, “I would have to know more about it,” Meschke said. “The risks are, one, that you’re damaging the mask and [letting] things through, so you have this false sense of security; and two, you’re creating some type of toxic exposure.”

So, “washing your cloth mask is probably the best approach,” he concluded.

Prins agreed. “For most of us, it’s not necessary to do anything additional to the mask,” she said. “The most important thing is just wash that mask.”

Stock up on face coverings if you haven’t already. “Have a rotation of masks so that you can have a fresh one each day and you don’t have to worry about whether it’s contaminated and trying to wear it again,” Prins said.

Jun called cycling through masks the “most effective way” to avoid using a dirty face covering when you can’t hit it with soap and water. When you can, she reiterated, “stick with the old tried-and-true: Just wash it.”

Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.

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