MONTREAL -- Many Montrealers have been wearing their disposable masks for far too long at a time, according to experts.

Disposable masks are only effective for a few hours of use, or even less if they become moist from coughing or sneezing. As moisture builds up, masks can no longer filter the air properly, increasing the risk of getting sick.

“Twenty per cent of people I saw had disposable masks, but they were not clean,” says Halah Al-Ubaidi, director of the NDG Community Council. Her council has given out hundreds of reusable masks to residents, as well as information pamphlets on how to wear them properly.

“[The masks] were black and torn,” says Al-Ubaidi. “They had obviously been used several times.”

“Everyone is incredibly well-meaning,” says Emily Villeneuve of the NDG Community Council. “People are trying to save their disposable masks. The problem is accessibility.”

Many Montrealers have switched to reusable cloth masks.

“The great thing about reusable masks is that they’re reusable,” says Sasha Dyck, a COVID-19 testing nurse. "While reusable masks are also less effective after getting damp, they can be washed after each use."

To clean a cloth mask, run it under hot water and lather with soap. Then, hang it up somewhere it can dry without touching anything. Santé Québec says masks can also be washed with a load of laundry.

If used properly, reusable masks can continue to reduce risk of infection after several uses. While wearing a mask, adjust it with the straps, not the cloth itself.

“Many people still call asking whether they should wear a mask,” says Rebecca Dyck, a nurse at 811 Info-Santé. She says people are probably confused by changing recommendations as researchers learn more about the virus.

Quebec health authorities strongly recommend wearing a mask in public, especially when you can’t keep a distance of two metres from other people.

“I think it’s hard for people to wrap their heads around the whole thing,” says NDG resident Jennifer Burr. She was tested at a Santé Montreal mobile clinic run out of a city bus in the borough. After her test, the Community Council gave her a free mask.

The free masks are from the city and the province. NDG got more than 126,000 single-use masks, and 6,600 reusable ones. With the borough’s population of over 166,000, officials worry they may run out soon.

The borough says it has ordered 5,000 more reusable masks from a private seller, and awaiting word from the city on whether more masks will be delivered.