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How dirty is your face mask? TODAY anchors are put to the test

NBC News investigative correspondent Vicky Nguyen had the masks worn by TODAY hosts tested for bacteria to see just how dirty they can get when worn regularly.
/ Source: TODAY

Now that face masks are a daily accessory for millions of Americans during the epidemic, it has raised another set of issues.

Just how dirty is your mask, and can bacteria on it make you sick?

NBC News investigative and consumer correspondent Vicky Nguyen aimed to find out by having the face masks worn by Savannah Guthrie, Hoda Kotb, Craig Melvin, Sheinelle Jones, Dylan Dreyer and her own mask tested for bacteria.

"I know mine's filthy, I can tell you right now," Craig joked.

"I don't change it that often," Savannah said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says everyone over age 2 should be wearing masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, which has resulted in protests in some states but has been recommended by health experts.

As for keeping masks clean, the CDC recommends washing them regularly by either machine-washing them with the rest of your laundry or by hand using 4 teaspoons of bleach per quart of water.

Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland, told TODAY in April that a weekly wash should be fine if the mask does not get soiled. NBC News contributor Joseph Fair, who is a virologist and epidemiologist, recommended washing them after every two uses. Other experts advised against using bleach, which can irritate the skin.

In order to get samples from the masks worn by the TODAY crew, Nguyen wore gloves and used special sterile swabs for each side of every mask. The swabs do not detect if the coronavirus is present but do pick up any bacteria.

She then enlisted the help of Susan Whittier, a microbiologist at Columbia University in New York City, to get the masks tested.

After getting the results 72 hours later, the TODAY crew did pretty well: Nothing was found on the inside or outside of Dylan's mask, while the masks worn by Savannah, Hoda, Vicky and Sheinelle had normal skin bacteria growing on the inside.

"That does make sense because a large majority of the mask is on your chin or above your nose," Whittier said.

The outside of the masks worn by Savannah and Hoda had a lot of growth, according to Whittier. They each had a different strain of pseudomonas, a bacteria commonly found in tap water, which Whittier said may indicate that Savannah and Hoda touched the outside of their mask with wet hands.

Nguyen also spoke to Dr. Mona Gohara, an associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, about another concern from regularly wearing face masks: acne, or "maskne," as it's come to be called by some dermatologists.

The friction of the mask as well as any moisture or humidity trapped under it can cause "maskne," and the type of mask a person wears may have an effect on whether they develop acne, according to Gohara. Dermatologists also suggest using the same cleanser you would use on your face to clean your mask to avoid acne.

Cotton and disposable masks are better for preventing acne because they are lighter and more breathable, while polyester and rayon masks trap humidity. Though doctors stress that a surgical or disposable mask should be changed once a week since they're not made to be worn for long periods of time.

Bottom line: All of our masks could probably benefit from a wash. Consider keeping a few by your door and rotating them out for cleaning every two to three days.