Do Homemade Face Masks Work? Here Are What Studies Say

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Free face mask pattern at SarahMaker
When this pandemic started to hit here in America, and we started to hear that personal protection equipment was low.  Along with many Americans I wondered if home made masks would help.  Now the
Centers for Disease Control has recommended that healthy and sick people wear non medical masks in public, because we know that some people with coronavirus show no symptoms and are spreading the virus.

How effective are homemade masks?  I have done some research and thought I'd share what I found.  First what fabric should you use?  The answer I found was 100% cotton fabric with a tight weave, shop rags, and Halyard H600. 

So how effective is 100% cotton fabric at filtering out similar partical sizes to the corona virus?  Researchers at Cambridge found that 100% cotton filters out 51% 0.02 micron particles (5 times smaller than the coronavirus.  You can see in the graphic below that 100% cotton tested much lower than most other materials so why would 100% cotton be the best material to use? Because it is the most breathable out of the materials tested.  A dish towel or vaccum cleaner bag for example might look like ideal materials for masks but they are not very breathable.  Being able to breath of course is important it also means it will be more comfortable and therefore you will wear it more.

Image via

The coronavirus is just 0.1 microns.
According to a 2013 Cambridge University study homemade masks made of cotton t shirts vs surgical masks with bacteria 0.02 microns (smaller than the corona virus).  The homemade masks filter ed out about 50% of the 0.02 micron particles compared to the surgicial masks 89.5%.

Image via
If you double the fabric will it double the protection?  No, but it will increase the amount of particles it filters slightly.  Researchers found a 2% increase in partical filtering in a doubled tshirt mask vs a single layer tshirt mask.

According to an NBC article, the best material to use is double layer 100% cotton quilters cotton or other tightly woven of 180 thread count or higher woven fabric and no knits.  If you are not sure hold it up to the light to test, the more easily light passes through means the more easily particles will too.  Lesser quality fabrics can still be used as ling as they have an internal layer of flannel.

Peter Tsai, a scientist who invented technology used in N95 masks, in an Washington Post article, said the best material for homemade masks is nonwoven fabric where fibers that are bound together mechanically, chemically, or thermally, not woven or knit.

Some non knit non woven fabrics would not work well such as wet wipes (too porous), or vacuum bags (not breathable).  Tsai recommended using car shop towels for masks.  He says it would do a better job of filtering droplets than cloth.  The towels are available in rolls and can be washed with soap and water and reused.

Check out this you tube video to learn how to make a no sew shop towel masks using a paper clip, rubber bands, a shop towel, tape, and a stapler. The author of this video tutorial for a shop rag mask JimHappy cautioned to make these on a sterile surface, with clean hands while wearing a mask outside or in a garage and wrap immediately in saran wrap and place in paper bags.

Another option for material for making masks if you are making masks for donation is Halyard H600.  Hospitals and medical facilities already have Halyard which is just disposed of and is 99.9% effective!  If you are making masks for a hospital I would highly recommend reading this article and contacting the medical facility first to see if they have Halyard to use for masks and would approve of it.

So far we have learned that homemade face masks can filter out up to 50% of particles similar in size to coronavirus and should be made of tightly woven double layer 100% cotton fabric, shop rags (being careful to make in a sterile environment), and if donating to a medical facility you should see if they have Halyard. So what type of mask should you make?  Which pattern is most effective and does fit matter?

According to a Washington Post article Raina MacIntyre, an epidemiologist and doctor who has done extensive research on the usefulness of masks and she would not recommend a specific type of mask, because we don't have evidence to support one type of mask over another.  What we should think of when considering a pattern is coverage and fit.

The masks should cover above the bridge of the nose and below the chin.  A mask should also have a snug fit.  Fabric ties can create a better fit than elastic bands.  I would also suspect that a mask with a wire over the bridge would fit better (surgical masks have this).  Some patterns use pipe cleaners, twist ties, or paper clips for the wire. Bottom line is fit is important to be effective.

While homemade masks can help stop the spread of coronavirus, it will only work if you are careful about how you take on and off your masks and keep it sterile and clean.  Check out this video from MN Health to learn the proper way to use a mask.

If you do wear a mask in public do not let it give you a false sense of security.  Social distancing and good hygenie are still very important in stopping the spread of the coronavirus.  Stay home and stay safe!

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