For weeks now, many people have been wondering if they should start wearing a face mask in public to stop the spread of COVID-19. With the recent announcement from the CDC, we finally have our answer. Yes, you should.
Just not the medical ones.
Surgical masks and other professional-grade supplies should be reserved for doctors and first responders. If you’re trying to order a protective mask, you may find you can’t get a delivery date until June—or that a $30 mask now costs $300.
As people around the world embrace DIY projects during their quarantine, homemade cloth masks have become a bit of a fad. What’s the best mask you can put together at home, though, with a minimum of effort?
We spoke with experts in the field to bring you details on how to make protective masks easily for you and for the whole family, using materials you already have at home.
Here’s everything you need to know before getting started.
The best material for making a face mask
Don’t just reach into the back of your closet for last year’s Spidey costume, because that’s not going to cut it.
“The goal is to pick a mask that can mimic the qualities of a standard surgical mask, which means a physical barrier that’s breathable and offers decent filtration,” says Keane Veran, CEO of OURA, a leading manufacturer of reusable and antimicrobial face masks.
How can you tell? Hold up your fabric to a bright light and check how much light passes through, Veran suggests. If there isn’t much light, you’ve found a dense fabric that can offer higher protective filtration.
Also, make sure to select a soft, breathable fabric, since you’re less likely to be removing or adjusting a mask that’s comfortable to wear.
“If you’re not washing your hands, and you touch a contaminated surface then your face to adjust your mask, you could potentially infect yourself even with the mask on,” explains Dr. Georgine Nanos, CEO of Kind Health Group.
If you’re still unsure where to start, plain old cotton is a pretty good choice.
“Cotton tea towels, pillowcases, bandanas, and scarves are all effective,” says Nanos.
Even better: a 100% cotton T-shirt, Veran says. That was found to be the most comfortable option among household fabrics used as masks, according to a study by Cambridge University.
Do I need a filter in my mask?
The experts seem to agree that in a situation where you risk exposure, a mask with multiple layers of protection is ideal. But for most of us who are just making a run to the grocery store, it’s a question of practicality.
“By adding a filter, there’s a tradeoff between breathability and filtration,” Veran says. If you have to remove the mask to breathe in more air while out in public, she says, it becomes counterproductive.
Perhaps you’ve heard about intrepid DIYers adding paper tissues or coffee filters to their masks. Beware of these makeshift solutions: Tissues don’t offer much filtration efficiency, Veran says.
“Coffee filters are slightly better, but in general, filters will make it more difficult to breathe,” he adds.
Another reason to avoid getting creative with the DIY filters? You might accidentally include one that contains hazardous materials, like fiberglass.
“I strongly recommend against HEPA filters,” says Veran. “Some HEPA filters and vacuum bags are made with fiberglass that tears away from the filter through continued use. Inhaling fiberglass can be very harmful.”
Besides running the risk of long-term respiratory problems, some health professionals say filters are excessive.
“I wouldn’t recommend a filter,” Nanos says. “Unless you’re in close contact with a known COVID-19 patient, or you’re a health care worker, it’s overkill. And if it’s uncomfortable to wear, you’re more likely to touch the mask and touch your face, which defeats the whole purpose.”
In the end, the pros recommend using something you find comfortable to wear, and washing it daily.
The final word on face masks
Making face masks may not be the family DIY project of your dreams, but it’s still a worthwhile way to spend an afternoon in lockdown. Get your kids to pick out some old cotton T-shirts, then get to work with these handy no-sew tutorials.
Be sure to make enough masks so that you can toss them in the laundry after every use. Not feeling so crafty these days? Check out MasksForCitizens. For every mask you buy, they’ll also donate one.