The novel coronavirus continues to spread across the globe, infecting hundreds of thousands of people. Among the devastation it leaves in its wake, hospitals are finding themselves running dangerously low on vital Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) including N95 face masks that offer respiratory protection against the virus. These shortages are the cause of an underprepared industry coupled with widespread panic which has driven non-health workers to stockpile these PPEs for themselves.
With such short supplies, healthcare workers have reportedly been forced to reuse masks and even use homemade versions. An influx of home sewers as well as fashion brands have answered the call to fill the void. But how effective are these DIY versions and should you wear them?
Why you should not buy surgical masks or N95 masks
There is a serious shortage of personal protective equipment (PPEs) worldwide and hospitals are in dire need of these vital supplies. These include surgical masks and N95 masks. Do not buy these. Do not hoard these. If you have any, donate them to your local hospital where doctors and staff need them most.
Hospital workers are at the front lines of this pandemic and are at a high risk of contracting COVID-19. If they are infected, they can get their coworkers infected, putting more first-responders on the bench. We need them to keep fighting, but they need to be healthy and thoroughly protected.
Practice social distancing, self-isolation and proper sanitation
Whether or not you are showing symptoms, social distancing, self-isolation and proper sanitation are the best solutions to help keep yourself and others healthy. The CDC says that virus is spread through moisture droplets which travel through the air from a person who’s contracted coronavirus, through their mouth and nose as they breathe or when they cough and sneeze. These droplets are thought to travel through the air no further than six feet. This is why it’s important to stay a safe distance from other people.
Also remember to wash your hands frequently with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds. Do this before you eat, after you use the bathroom, after you come into contact with another person and after you’ve touched any possibly contaminated surface. Another important practice is to avoid touching your face, where the virus can enter into your body through your mouth, nose and eyes.
How effective are homemade masks?
N95 respirators are the gold standard for hospitals not only because of the material they’re made from but also because they fit tightly around the face, sealing it off from air that can get around the mask itself. The masks are shown to filter out 95 percent of particles in the air, hence the name. A 2013 study at the University of Cambridge experimented with several readily available materials common to the household to measure each one’s effectiveness at blocking airborne particles. The study demonstrated that a simple tea towel can block 83 percent of particles in the air (and up to 96 percent when doubled up). Interestingly, the material used for common household vacuum bags demonstrated 94 percent.
However, the study also found that tea towels are not practical for breathability. The study went on to show that a common all-cotton t-shirt demonstrated 69 percent effectiveness on its own and up to a little over 70 percent effectiveness when doubled. It also more breathable compared to surgical masks.
Again, it must be emphasized that no study yet claims that homemade masks are effective at protecting you from the novel coronavirus. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) says that these DIY masks often give a false sense of security and can lead to riskier behavior and negligence when it comes to proper safety precautions such as hand washing. The CDC says that homemade masks can be used as a last resort when no PPEs are available. The best way to protect yourself and others is to stay at home and practice proper social distancing practices.
There have been other studies that have suggested that homemade options show effectiveness greater than zero. As many have said, albeit anecdotally, it’s better than nothing. If you’re going to use a face mask, make sure to properly launder and sterilize your materials and be sure not to touch the mask directly on the fabric when putting it on or taking it off (just like you would avoid touching your face). Instead, grab the mask by the straps whenever putting it on or taking it off. And always launder and sterilize your mask after every use. Ideally, you would have multiple masks so that you can use a sterilized mask while you wash/sterilize a recently used mask. Here, we’ve included two face mask options — one that requires no sewing at all and another that requires a sewing machine.
Step 1: Place the fabric face down.
Step 2: Fold the top and bottom edges to the center of the fabric.
Step 3: Flip the fabric over.
Step 4: Once more, fold the top and bottom edges to the center of the fabric.
Step 5: Thread the fabric through each hair tie until the ties are about face-with apart.
Step 6: Fold the left and right edges of the fabric toward the center.
Step 7: Adjust to fit.
Step 1: Download and print out the Face Mask Sewing Pattern. There is a scale marking for you to check if you are printing it in the right size. Alternatively, if you do not have a printer, you can place a piece of paper on top of the pattern on the screen of your computer and trace the pattern, making sure that the scale on the screen is zoomed so that it measures to two inches.
Step 2: Cut the pattern.
Step 3: Fold the fabric with the wrong side facing each other, place the paper template on top and pin it in place.
Step 4: Cut the fabric with 3/8″ seam allowance at the top and bottom. For the sides of the mask, leave 1″ for the outer layer and 1/2″ for the inner layer.
Step 5: Trace the sewing lines onto the fabric with the tracing paper.
Step 6: Turn the pieces over and pin them together with the right side of the fabric facing each other. Sew the curved lines.
Step 7: For the outer layer, turn the pieces right side out. To get the seam allowance to lay flat, press the seam allowance to one side and stitch near the seam. Repeat for the inner layer.
Step 8: For the inner layer, double fold 1/4″ at the left and right sides. This step hides the raw edges.
Step 9: With the wrong sides facing out, place the inner layer on top of the outer layer and sew the top and bottom edges.
Step 10: Turn the piece inside out.
Step 11: To insert the elastic cord or hair tie, place the cords at both the left and right edges of the outer layer. Double fold the edge of the outer layer over the elastic, press and sew.
The CDC updates its guidelines and recommendations on masks regularly. To read the latest guidelines, click here.