Protective masks are a hot commodity, so hot that not even healthcare workers can get their hands on them right now. That shortage has compelled many people to figure out how to make their own, both for their own personal use and to donate to hospitals.
Here’s what you need to know:
- Even a piece of cloth over your face offers some measure of protection.
- Some types of masks are better than others.
- A common HEPA vacuum bag can make an effective mask.
- There are many online resources and open groups that you can go to for support.
Our respirator guide has tips on what to look for in a mask or respirator, as well as recommendations for what to buy if you can find masks in stock.
Will homemade masks help?
Despite recommendations from the WHO to not wear masks, and the US Surgeon General and the CDC initially advising against masks, the CDC and the Surgeon General have now reversed those positions in light of new evidence that masks are effective in slowing the spread of the coronavirus, with the Surgeon General even demonstrating how to make a mask.
Research shows that even a t-shirt over your face can reduce your chances of spreading germs:
Twenty-one healthy volunteers made their own face masks from cotton t-shirts; the masks were then tested for fit. The number of microorganisms isolated from coughs of healthy volunteers wearing their homemade mask, a surgical mask, or no mask was compared using several air-sampling techniques. The median-fit factor of the homemade masks was one-half that of the surgical masks. Both masks significantly reduced the number of microorganisms expelled by volunteers, although the surgical mask was 3 times more effective in blocking transmission than the homemade mask. Our findings suggest that a homemade mask should only be considered as a last resort to prevent droplet transmission from infected individuals, but it would be better than no protection.
All types of masks reduced aerosol exposure, relatively stable over time, unaffected by duration of wear or type of activity, but with a high degree of individual variation. Personal respirators were more efficient than surgical masks, which were more efficient than home-made masks.
A study published in Nature concluded that even a surgical mask could reduce the spread of influenza and coronavirus.
Smart Air has an extensive article looking at the efficacy of homemade masks.
Likewise, The Washington Post is advocating for universal mask-wearing, as is Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times, in a total 180 from his attitude at the end of January.
Jeremy Howard, a research scientist at the University of San Francisco, is recommending that even presumably healthy people should wear homemade face masks. He also demonstrates making a quick mask with a t-shirt and a paper towel.
There’s some simple math here. Wearing just a bandana over your mouth reduces how much potentially infected spittle you put in the air and reduces how much you breathe in. If everyone does that, it could have an exponential effect.
What types of masks are there?
In terms of personal protective equipment, there are roughly three types of masks:
- Makeshift masks like t-shirts and bandannas. They’re better than nothing but not as good as…
- Surgical masks, which are designed to keep surgeons from spraying spittle into patients’ bodies. They’re better than makeshift masks but not as good as…
- Respirators, particularly of the N95 designation, which are designed to fit tight against your face and filter fine particles. These are the gold standard.
The good news is that with the right materials you can make all three! However, there is a lot of disagreement about what mask designs are best.
Anything is better than nothing, but the bottom line is you should never pretend that a mask makes you invincible. It doesn’t replace isolation and social distancing, it’s merely another protective layer to employ if you enter a situation where you might be exposed.
How can I make a protective mask?
There are a lot of great guides to making protective masks. You can make your own respirator-like mask with a HEPA vacuum bag (which are still surprisingly available). Instructables has an excellent written guide that answers many questions and offers printable fabric patterns.
Dr. Ryan Southworth and his wife Amy have a video on YouTube that describes the process of making a mask out of HEPA vacuum bags. I recommend watching this video along with reading the Instructables guide because they offer some great medical tips for mask construction, like making the first mask for yourself and then wearing it when constructing the rest so as to not contaminate them.
As Dr. Southworth says, if you’re going to bother sewing a mask, it might as well be one with a HEPA filter to maximize its effectiveness. The Southworths use a sewing machine to make their masks, but Diane Vuković at Primal Survivor actually recommends sewing by hand.
Some people, particularly on YouTube, are spreading the rumor that vacuum bags are made with fiberglass and are thus unsafe to breathe through. Vacuum bags do not contain fiberglass. Josh Wolcott of Vacuums R Us explains the construction of vacuum bags and their effectiveness as mask filtration media in a YouTube video. Wolcott explains that it would make no sense to put fiberglass in HEPA vacuum bags, because the entire point is to filter out harmful particles, like fiberglass.
If you don’t have a sewing machine at hand or can’t get your hands on a HEPA bag, you might have to turn to alternatives. Jess Dang has a video showing how to make a nice-looking mask without a sewing machine.
The ragmask project is being constantly updated with designs focused on simplicity: “Current design is square-cuts-only, requires no pinning or pressing, and can be made in only a few minutes per mask if done in batches.”
The Oregonian has a video on how to make a mask with no sewing at all.
Even CNBC has instructions on making your own mask, with some reasons why you should.
And if you’re in a hurry, here’s a one-minute video showing how to turn a t-shirt into a ninja mask.
Can I join others in making masks?
Yes! Many groups have sprung up dedicated to making homemade masks for healthcare workers:
- Sewing for Lives
- Sew Masks for NYC Healthcare Workers
- Crafting Against COVID-19 PDX
- Colorado Mask Project
- JOANN Fabrics is offering workspace, materials, and tools to make masks.
- Sew Good Goods is offering free kits to make masks for Minnesota healthcare workers.
- Even the Amish are getting in on mask making.
If you know about a group, let me know in the comments and I’ll add it to the list. Most of these groups are congregating on Facebook, so check there if you use it to find a group near you.