The coronavirus outbreak around the globe has led to a shortage of protective face masks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says healthcare workers should use homemade masks as a last resort when no protective equipment is available.
Take note, Homemade masks offer much less protection than surgical masks and N95 respirators. But they are better than nothing, medical professionals say.
“While homemade masks are not as effective as surgical masks or N95 masks, they are absolutely helpful in this time with the major shortage going on. They help keep the area clean and clear, so it is better than wearing nothing.” Dr. Shawn Nasseri
How effective are homemade masks?
A 2013 study that looked at the ability of homemade masks made from cotton T-shirt material to prevent the spread of influenza found that they were about one-third as effective as surgical masks but still “significantly reduced the number of microorganisms expelled by volunteers.” However, it’s not clear from this study how effectively the masks protected people from breathing in particles that could contain a virus.
Right now, it’s important to save N95 respirators for medical professionals caring for patients with COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, said Joyce Fulton, a registered nurse. Fulton is helping organize people to make masks for the general public in hopes of freeing up more supplies for medical professionals.
How to make an effective face mask?
You can make a homemade mask regardless of whether you’re able to sew. Many items you have around the house can filter air particles and might reduce your exposure to the virus. Nasseri said layers are key to making an effective mask. It’s also important that the mask forms a snug seal over the mouth and nose so that particles can’t get in through gaps.
“Masks with a silky outer layer (if possible), middle layer of a thick, tightly woven material like nylon or cotton, and then a comfortable cotton on the inside are ideal,” he said. Skip the wool or other fabrics that can cause allergies or irritate your skin.
There are many free patterns for sewing a mask. Some healthcare organizations have released guidelines, and some stores, including JoAnn Fabrics, are offering free precut materials to people sewing face masks at home. You can even sew a face mask lined with a vacuum filter, which some say could be more effective at filtering particles.
There are also no-sew mask options. In 2006, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh shared with the CDC guidelines for making an effective face mask if surgical masks and N95 masks were unavailable during a viral outbreak.
The researchers used regular cotton T-shirts to make no-sew face masks. First, they boiled the cotton for 10 minutes to sterilize it, then cut it to size and formed a mask using one outer layer and eight inner layers covering the nose and mouth. The mask could be tied around the head to get a snug fit without elastic. They said that testing showed that this mask “offered substantial protection.”
Annie Cook, an expert quilter and linguist from Los Angeles, has made over 120 masks for people in her neighborhood. I was just hearing so much fear and despair that I posted on Nextdoor that I would make masks for free. I have tons of fabric and realized quickly that hair ties would make perfect ear loops
People are so heartbreakingly relieved when they pick up the masks, as they then feel that they can venture into supermarkets and pharmacies.” Annie Cook.
Here’s her process for making masks;
- Fabric such as cotton, a washcloth, or a microfiber cloth
- Elastic bands or hair ties
- Sewing machine
Steps to follow
- Start with two rectangles of fabric, 12 inches by 6 inches (or 11 inches by 5 inches for a smaller head).
- Sew the layers together, then sew the bottom edge closed.
- Fold over one side edge, and start sewing the fabric so that the elastic band or hair tie is inside the fold.
- Once you’ve started it, pull the elastic taut and sew down the rest of the fold.
- Repeat on the other side.
- Be sure to backstitch (sew over multiple times) at the beginning and end of the seam, since the elastic will be pulling at those spots.
For more information on how to stay safe and prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, visit the CDC’s website.