A wet mask lies among leaves on the forest floor in Rock Bridge Memorial State Park in Columbia on Friday, Sept. 11.

Masks are everywhere and prevent the spread of COVID-19. Between locally made cloth masks and single-use, disposable masks, they all serve the same purpose.

Vox asked local experts what there is to know about your mask's life cycle from production to disposal.

What should masks be made of?

Cotton or a material that doesn’t have holes in it is recommended, says Ashton Day, health educator at Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human Services. 

Surgical masks are made from plastics like polypropylene and are effective but cannot be recycled, according to the BBC.

A mask should have at least two layers with ear loops or ties in the back. Neck gaiters are not recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention because their effectiveness is still under review, and face shields should not be substituted for masks as they do not provide effective protection from COVID-19. Masks with exhalation valves or vents are not recommended because the air you exhale is not filtered by the mask, so you risk exposing others. For more information, visit the CDC’s website.


Where do masks come from?

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, countries that produce the highest percentage of masks are China, 41%; U.S., 18%; and Germany, 7%.

Where can I get local masks made by community members?

Columbia residents have banded together to make masks for those who need them, like students returning to school or health care workers. More than 1,000 joined the Facebook group Sew For Safety.

“I joined the group, and they were making calls for volunteer seamstresses to sew masks. And within a matter of a couple of days, we had this great group,” says Kaye Mallory, a member of Sew For Safety.

Others are making masks to benefit nonprofit groups or to support a social movement.

What should I do when I take my mask off?

Wash or sanitize your hands before and after removing your mask. If it’s a disposable mask, throw it away immediately.

“Don't just put it in your car, on your bedside table or anywhere else that then could potentially spread germs,” says Elizabeth Thompson, Boone County Office of Emergency Management training and exercise specialist. 

When should I wear my mask?

Wear your mask at all times when you are in public or around others, unless you are eating. If you are eating, then you should be socially distanced, says Mary Beck, MU Health Care chief nursing officer. 

According to Columbia’s recent public health order, masks are still required within city limits. 



A stained mask lies in the Broadway Street Walmart's parking lot in Columbia on Sept. 11.

Why does my mask get dirty?

There are a variety of reasons masks become dirty. Dust, pollen and debris become trapped between mask fibers. When you breathe, the mask collects moisture. Bacteria on your fingers collect on your mask when you touch it.

“That's just not good hygiene," Beck says. "That's why you want to wash your mask."

When should I dispose of my mask?

Cloth masks should be washed everyday. Disposable masks, like surgical masks, are intended to be single-use masks, so they should be disposed of after each day. If a mask becomes soiled, then it should be disposed of immediately. 

“So when a mask like that, that's meant to be disposable, becomes wet or visibly soiled, then the filtration efficiency of the mask deteriorates," Thompson says. "And really that's a signal for you to get a new mask."

What should I do if I find a littered mask?

Put gloves on. Pick the mask up, and throw it in the trash. Throw the gloves away. Wash your hands. Make sure to not touch anything else.

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