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Make Your Own Face Mask—No Sewing Machine Required

You probably already have everything you need at home.

As COVID-19 spreads across the United States, hospitals are struggling to keep fully functional while running through their limited supplies of face masks, gowns, and other protective equipment.

The Phoebe Putney hospital in Georgia went through six months of supplies in less than a week, Stanford Hospital in California has asked sustainable t-shirt startup For Days to make cotton terry cloth N95 mask covers, and even high-end fashion designers like Christian Siriano have begun making medical-grade masks and gowns.

“No one before would have thought of fashion designers or anybody helping with DIY masks,” says Katie Kozel, a medical supply chain consultant in Colorado. “But no one before would have thought of trying to use rain ponchos as isolation gowns either, which we’re seeing happen now.”

Tutorials for DIY masks have proliferated across social media and the internet as news of the dire conditions in hospitals across the country hit the news, and people want to pitch in. But the value of such a mask may not lie so much in helping medical professionals, but in helping to protect yourself and the people around you.

The difference between N95 and surgical masks

N95 respirators are stiff masks with a filter that blocks 95 percent of particles measuring 0.3 microns in size, and are fit-tested to each healthcare worker to ensure they create a sealed barrier. Like most personal protective equipment (PPE), N95 masks are meant to be discarded after each use. But as a result of the shortage, the CDC has recommended healthcare workers store their used N95 masks in paper bags between uses, which raises the risk of disease transmission between healthcare workers and patients.

In contrast, surgical masks are loose-fitting coverings made of pleated melt-blown fabric: a fine mesh of synthetic polymer fibers that allows the wearer to breathe while blocking tiny particles that could carry the virus. However, they don’t fit as tightly as N95 respirators, so they don’t provide the same protection against airborne coronavirus particles (which may persist in the air for up to three hours).

Surgical masks aren’t meant to shield the wearer from infection, but to protect others by corralling any infectious droplets that may come out of your mouth or nose—whether you’re symptomatic or not. That’s why authorities have insisted only people presenting symptoms or suspected of having COVID-19 should wear them.

However, healthcare professionals now have no choice but to wear surgical masks around COVID-19-infected patients, donning the safer, scarcer N95 respirators only when performing risky procedures like intubation. And even surgical masks are running low.

Cloth masks as an alternative to medical masks

Researchers at the University of New South Wales who studied the use of reusable cloth masks several years ago found that doctors who wore them had a significantly higher chance of respiratory infection. Almost 97 percent of particles got through the cloth masks used in the study, compared with the 44 percent that penetrated synthetic medical masks. The cloth’s ability to retain moisture, plus the fact that the masks were reused, might have also contributed to their inefficiency.

No wonder that the World Health Organization says cloth masks are “not recommended under any circumstances” in healthcare settings during the COVID-19 outbreak.

As the pandemic advances, however, experts are starting to question whether cloth masks could help the general public. That’s because it’s still unclear how wearing a cloth mask compares to wearing no mask. A 2006 study by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh pointed out there’s no easy way to prove the effectiveness of homemade masks. On the other hand, researchers in a 2013 study by Public Health England concluded that while “a homemade mask should only be considered as a last resort,” it might be better than nothing at all.

How to make a face mask

Let’s make this clear: masks, no matter how effective, are not guaranteed to protect you from COVID-19.

“A mask is only ever as good as the wearer, and isn’t a replacement for social distancing and good hand hygiene,” says Anna Davies, one of the researchers in the Public Health England study.

In a perfect world, everyone would have their own masks to wear in public to help prevent the virus from quietly spreading, and the CDC is reportedly considering recommending that everyone wear masks in public, not just those with symptoms.

Unfortunately, masks are a bit hard to come by right now, and buying masks reduces the supply for healthcare workers who need them. Even if the CDC doesn’t make a new recommendation, anyone taking care of a sick loved one should probably have at least two, so they can sterilize one while wearing the other.

Our tutorial is a simple project for people who don’t have a sewing machine, adapted from MakerMask by Helpful Engineering, a global open-source COVID-19 project. While many projects call for cotton, Davies says there’s no indication it is better or worse than other fabrics—it’s just comfortable and something people tend to have on hand. Because of researchers’ hypotheses about cotton masks’ hydrophilic (water-loving) qualities contributing to higher rates of respiratory infection, we’ve stayed with MakerMask’s suggestion to use a hydrophobic synthetic material similar (but not identical) to the material used in surgical masks. And many people have it right in their own home.


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