What You Should Know Before Trying to Make Your Own Face Mask

By | April 16, 2020

Expert-approved answers to your DIY face mask questions, including how to clean it and what material to use.

On April 3, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced new guidelines recommending that everyone wear face masks in public settings, even if they don’t feel sick, to avoid spreading the novel coronavirus. The CDC asks that surgical and respirator (N95) masks be saved for medical personnel, so many people are creating their own instead. If you’re going to try to DIY—out of a bandanna, scarf, or other fabric you’ve got lying around—here’s what you need to know about what does and doesn’t work.

Why do I need to wear a mask?

Though experts said that mask-wearing was unnecessary at first, the CDC has recently changed its thinking on the subject. New research suggests that not only could a person unknowingly carry the virus for an average of four to five days before developing symptoms, but many people with the virus could also be asymptomatic, showing no symptoms at all. In both cases, these people are still contagious. While wearing a mask does not guarantee that you won’t get sick, it does significantly lower the risk of pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic people spreading the virus to others, according to the CDC.

When should I wear a mask?

The CDC recommends wearing a cloth face mask any time you need to leave your home. That includes going to the grocery store, picking up takeout food, and even going on outdoor runs or walks. But covering your face with a homemade mask does not mean you can relax other social distancing measures. Face masks should provide additional protection for essential outings where you can’t always stay six feet away from others—but you should still avoid large, optional social gatherings, the CDC says. You can safely ignore these 10 etiquette rules because of coronavirus, too.

What material should I use?

Not all face masks are created equal, and some are more effective at protecting you from incoming germs than others. Research shows that the best material to use for face masks is one with a thick, tight weave, which blocks more viral particles from passing through. After testing masks made with a variety of different fabrics, researchers at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine found that the most effective masks were made with a heavyweight “quilter’s cotton,” which has a thread count of at least 180.

No quilter’s cotton? No problem. Pillowcases with 600-thread count, thick flannel pajamas, and even vacuum cleaner bags are also approved alternatives, as long as it’s layered and you can breathe comfortably. If you don’t know what fabric to use, experts suggest one simple rule of thumb: “Hold it up to a bright light,” Dr. Scott Segal, chairman of anesthesiology at Wake Forest Baptist Health, told the New York Times. “If light passes really easily through the fibers and you can almost see the fibers, it’s not a good fabric. If it’s a denser weave of thicker material and light doesn’t pass through it as much, that’s the material you want to use.”

Scarves and cotton bandannas, on the other hand, are among the least effective mask-making materials, according to a recent study at the Missouri University of Science and Technology. However, the scientists found that bandanna masks provide more filtration when layered with a few coffee filters. So don’t fret if you don’t have the perfect material; just work with what you have. When push comes to shove, studies show that any face covering is better than nothing for slowing the spread of coronavirus.

Do I need to know how to sew?

No. If you have an old T-shirt and a pair of scissors lying around, you’re all set. The CDC has posted two patterns for DIY face masks on its website, including a no-sew option. Surgeon General Jerome Adams also released a video showing how to a mask out of cloth and rubber bands—no needle and thread required.

Why can’t I wear a surgical or respirator mask?

Medical-grade masks, like N95 and surgical masks, offer great protection against COVID-19. However, these masks are in short supply. The CDC has requested we save medical-grade masks for healthcare workers, who are exposed to a much higher dose of COVID-19 on a daily basis than the average person. These masks should also be reserved for high-risk individuals, who are more at risk of developing severe complications from the virus.

Rest assured that homemade face masks made with thick material are nearly as effective as medical-grade masks, especially if you are just making a quick trip to the grocery store. In the Missouri University study, two layers of an allergy-reduction HVAC filter captured 94 percent of airborne particles, six layers of furnace filters captured 95 percent, and four layers of high-thread count pillowcases captured nearly 60 percent. (Make sure to place the filters between two pieces of cloth fabric to avoid inhaling any harmful fibers.) By comparison, surgical masks filter out 62 to 65 percent of particles and N95 masks filter out 95 percent of particles. The bottom line: N95 masks are one of the coronavirus products you shouldn’t waste your money on.

HANDMADE COTTON made for HOSPITALS during COVID-19 CRISIS made by the photographer.Marie Hickman/Getty Images
Your mask should fit snugly from the bridge of your nose to underneath your chin, according to the CDC guidelines. Secure the mask with loops or ties and tighten them until the mask fits comfortably around your face without gaps. Try to resist the urge to adjust it while in public, which would lead you to touch your face and risk spreading germs from your hands. Face mask or not, washing your hands regularly and correctly can prevent coronavirus and a long list of other diseases.

How do I take the mask on and off?

First of all, you should always wash your hands before and after wearing a face mask, experts say. To take the mask on and off your face, grab the ties or loops around your ears rather than the front of the mask. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth in the process, as well. For the mask to be the most effective, the CDC recommends putting it on and removing it at home, as well as keeping it in position for the entire time you are out in public.

How should I care for my mask?

In order to keep the virus at bay, it’s critical to clean your masks regularly. A cycle in the washing machine with hot water and detergent will do the job, the CDC says. Cloth masks should be washed in water that is at least 167 degrees F (75 degrees C), the minimum temperature shown to kill the flu virus, per the CDC guidelines on the flu virus. While using harsher chemicals like bleach may be tempting, experts suggest holding off “until we know the effect on the fabric’s effectiveness,” Segal told NBC News. Speaking of cleaning, you should stock up on these household products that can kill coronavirus.

Learn more about how to navigate your way through this unprecedented situation with our comprehensive Coronavirus Guide.

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