The surgical mask has come to symbolize the fears and controversies surrounding the novel coronavirus and COVID-19.
You probably saw pictures of people wearing the masks everywhere after reports of the rapid spread of the coronavirus emerged from China in January.
Discussions and heated debates ensued about whether it’s smart for the average, seemingly healthy, sheltering-at-home person to wear one when they’re out. The should you/shouldn’t you advice was whiplash inducing, because even scientists couldn’t agree.
Then you heard of medical mask shortages—at pharmacies, online retailers, and especially in healthcare settings.
Crafty people started making masks at home. Even Fanatics, the company that makes certain uniforms for Major League Baseball, started fashioning masks out of uniform material to send to the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis.
Many local, state, and federal officials are recommending that people wear non-surgical face coverings when going out in public to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
And now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend using “cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies), especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.”
The CDC recommendation comes after a series of recent studies about the transmission of the coronavirus COVID-19.
“A significant portion of individuals with coronavirus lack symptoms (“asymptomatic”) and that even those who eventually develop symptoms (“pre-symptomatic”) can transmit the virus to others before showing symptoms,” according to the CDC. “This means that the virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity—for example, speaking, coughing, or sneezing—even if those people are not exhibiting symptoms.”
So What Kind of Mask Should You Make?
The New York Times published a pattern on how to sew a mask. But if you don’t have a sewing machine or even decent needle skills, you can fashion something with household fabrics. Basically, you need something that’s going to cover your nose and mouth and that can be hooked behind your ears with some kind of elastic.
There isn’t a definitive scientific study on which fabrics protect you from this novel coronavirus yet. But one study from the journal Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness checked the filtering abilities of different types of fabric and how they might protect the wearer in an influenza pandemic.
The fabrics they found to be most effective in that study:
- “A pillowcase and the 100% cotton t-shirt were found to be the most suitable household materials for an improvised face mask,” according to that study. The slight stretch of the t-shirts they tested, they suspect, also helped provide a better fit, which is important in filtering out particles.
- A vacuum cleaner bag had a high filtration efficiency, but its stiffness and thickness prevented it from fitting well, “rendering it unsuitable for a face mask.”
- A scarf and silk fabric offered less protection than the materials above.
The catch is that this study didn’t measure how good these materials are against the novel coronavirus, and not every t-shirt, pillowcase, or scarf is made of the same material and has the same weave.
So until there’s additional, good information on exactly which fabric is the best, use common sense and take the following into account.
What else to consider about how to make a cloth face mask
- “Comfort should be an important factor in the material used to make a homemade mask,” according to the Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness research.
- It should be as tight to your face as possible. Loose-fitting masks aren’t nearly as helpful.
Of course, a face mask doesn’t exempt you from the other coronavirus protection measures, including social distancing (see why it’s better to call it physical distancing) and washing your hands.