(NEWS10) — A year ago, we were introduced to wearing a face mask, and now it’s something we can’t leave the house without. But did you ever stop to think, what is on them and can it make you sick?

“I think it’s a worthwhile and interesting question because we are wearing these masks all the time,” said Dr. Anna McLoon, Ph.D. Research Scientist and Assistant Professor at Siena College.

Face masks have been the symbol of the pandemic. They help protect you and others from COVID-19. But how dirty do masks get if you don’t wash them regularly? Dr. Anna McLoon helped NEWS10 with a little experiment at Siena College to answer what types of bacteria you could be carrying around.

NEWS10 collected masks from some of our staff members. 

“We live in a microbial world and we are interacting with microbes all the time. Whether we know it or not, they are a part of us and it’s not something we need to be scared of,” said Dr. McLoon. 

During the experiment, three masks were collected and tested. Two were cloth masks and one was a disposable mask.

The one cloth mask was washed every single day during the experiment. The second cloth mask was not washed for over a month.

The disposable mask was brand new and then someone wore it throughout the experiment. 

“So, we made sure when we were doing this this experiment that we looked at clean masks, vs. worn masks. Then we looked at the face and the mask to sort of make sure that they weren’t really catching things on the mask that weren’t already there,” said Dr. McLoon.

Dr. McLoon and NEWS10’s Spencer Tracy took three Petri dishes and labeled them either clean or used. They pressed all three of the masks in a mixture of sodium chloride and soy protein. Then Dr. McLoon took of all the samples to test for two groups of bacteria. She then let the samples incubate for twenty-four hours.

After a day of wearing the same mask, the NEWS10 team went back to Siena College for the second day of testing. Dr. McLoon says after each day you wear a mask and don’t wash it, bacteria can have more of a chance to grow. 

“Any piece of clothing that is rubbing against your skin, you’re going to transfer microbes. They live on your body and they are part of who you are. Bacteria can spread to that article of clothing and it’s totally normal,” she said.

After two days of testing, we were ready to see the results. 

“I don’t think there were huge differences between the three masks. I mean there were differences. But I have seen such a wide range, that I would say none of them were that bad,” said Dr. McLoon.

The cloth mask that was washed during the experiment had small traces of bacteria on it. While the mask that was worn for over a month and the disposable one had double amounts of bacteria such as coliform and E. coli.  

“E. coli is something we really wouldn’t expect to see on the face. If it is on your mask, it’s a sign that you’re handling the mask with hands that aren’t very clean,” she said.

Dr. McLoon then looked under the microscope at the three masks and found colonies of bacteria. She said two of the masks were very contaminated.

“So having bacteria on our mask isn’t a problem. I mean I think the more you wear your mask it can become moist. The more you don’t wash it and store it overnight kind of balled up instead of hanging out to dry, you can increase the growth of things.”

A big question that many want to know is, can you get sick from wearing a mask full of bacteria? The short answer is no.

“I wouldn’t be worried about the mask getting you sick as long as you are washing it regularly or using a new one. But I think the more you wear it, the more you’re protecting others,” said Dr. McLoon.

Dr. McLoon said the bottom line is when in doubt, just wash your mask. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests washing your cloth mask every day either in the washing machine or by hand with soap and water.

You can put it in the dryer or hang it out to dry. As for disposable masks, the CDC suggests throwing them away after one use.