Recent rumblings over official face mask recommendations and an ongoing shortage of protective equipment are leaving people to wonder: Can a DIY mask really protect against COVID-19? And should I start making one?

By Korin Miller
April 01, 2020
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Back in February, public health officials stressed that the general public doesn't need to use face masks for protection from coronavirus, aka COVID-19. Surgeon General Jerome Adams even tweeted out at the time, "Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus."

But that's all starting to change—or so it seems.

Fast forward to the end of March, and public health officials are reportedly reconsidering their stance on masks. One federal official told The Washington Post that leaders from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are considering updating official guidance to encourage people to cover their faces in an attempt to tamp down on the coronavirus pandemic.

And in an interview with NPR on Monday, Robert Redfield, the director of the CDC, revealed that there is new data showing "significant asymptomatic transmission." This means that people who are infected with COVID-19 but don't have symptoms are still infectious and "that may be up to 25 percent [of individuals]," he told NPR. Researchers in Iceland, however, found that around 50 percent of those who tested positive for coronavirus on the island were asymptomatic, according to CNN.

Because of these new findings on asymptomatic coronavirus transmission, the CDC is "aggressively" reviewing the data and the organization's guidelines on wearing masks, Redfield told NPR. Meanwhile, however, the CDC's official recommendations have remained the same: Only people who are infected with COVID-19 and those who are caring for them should wear masks.

TL;DR—While the guidelines still suggest forgoing a mask unless otherwise specified, it's starting to sound like everyone might all be wearing masks in the near future.

But here's the thing: The world, yes world, is facing a significant shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), including face masks. Healthcare workers—those at the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic, who need masks the most—are being forced to treat patients without proper protection. So, even if the mask guidelines do change, you should not embark on a mask-finding-and-buying expedition. And if you already have masks at home, medical professionals and public officials ask that you donate them.

Okay, so what are you supposed to do for protection?

Wash your hands. Don't touch your face. Stay home.

If you do need to go out in public, keep 6 feet away from others. And, if the face mask recommendations change and/or you feel more comfortable wearing one, consider getting a little, err, creative.

In fact, many brands, such as Under Armour, New Balance, Nike, and Athleta are using their materials to manufacture masks specifically for healthcare professionals.

And lots of people have followed suit, making their own masks for personal protection...albeit on a bit of a smaller production scale (read: at home). Social media is now filled with how-to tutorials and suggestions from people on DIY-ing.

But how safe are DIY masks, really? Can they help protect you against COVID-19? And, if so, what should they be made of? So many questions…

First, what is the best kind of face mask to use?

In a perfect world (one that does not have a shortage of face masks), you'd use an N95 mask, aka an N95 respirator. This mask is a protective device that's designed to fit very close to your face and filter out airborne particles, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

But due to face mask shortages, including a scarcity of N95 masks, many healthcare workers have had to resign to using looser-fitting surgical masks. Surgical masks create a physical barrier between the mouth and nose of the wearer and potential contaminants in the environment, according to the FDA. But they don't offer as much protection against airborne particles like SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. (Looser fit = less protection. Learn more about N95 masks vs. surgical masks and coronavirus here.)

On top of that, there's no way to make a mask that's akin to an N95. Many DIY face masks are designed to mimic surgical masks which, again, aren't a perfect defense against COVID-19. But they can—and do—still come in handy. Case in point: Many medical workers have taken to putting homemade masks over their N95 masks to help protect the PPE from pathogens since they have to reuse them (despite being disposable, BTW).

Can DIY face masks do anything to protect you against COVID-19?

Yes and no.

"Cloth masks don't filter out the virus, which has extremely small particles," says Richard Watkins, M.D., an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University. But that doesn't mean they're worthless. "A DIY mask is probably better than nothing because it will at least remind people not to touch their face," he says. DIY masks haven't been studied, but it's unlikely they can offer as much protection as a professional mask, adds Dr. Watkins.

But face masks worn by the general public are usually recommended to protect other people—not yourself, says infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. "The reason the CDC is debating masks is not about protecting the individual wearing it," he says. In this case, the masks are designed to cover the mouths and noses of people who might be infected with COVID-19 and not realize it. The hope is that wearing a mask will help keep them from spreading the virus to others, he explains.

Some experts are concerned that DIY masks may make people think they're protected when they're not. "I am worried about the public wearing DIY masks gaining a false sense of security and not washing their hands as well," says Dr. Adalja. He's also concerned that people may create fomites—objects and materials that are likely to carry viruses—when they take the masks off, increasing the risk of infecting themselves or others around them. So if you do make your own mask, it's important that, immediately after wearing it, you throw it into the washing machine, avoid touching other objects in the process, and wash your hands with soap and water. (And if you haven't already, please make sure you're washing your hands correctly.)

Still, a DIY mask may be "better than nothing" for protecting yourself, says "People [may] think that it's protective and might not do the other things that are recommended, like washing your hands," says Suzanne Willard, Ph.D., clinical professor and associate dean for global health at Rutgers School of Nursing. While "it's not as good as the now-familiar N95, it does cover and provides a barrier," she explains.

How can you make a face mask that protects against coronavirus?

There are no "rules" for DIY face masks, but experts offer some general guidance.

First thing's first: materials. It's important you find a material that you can still breathe through but also isn't too permeable, like "a close weave where you cannot see through the fabric," says Willard, who has been making face masks at home for herself, friends, family, and other medical workers.

"Cotton is good because it is washable," she adds. Other fabrics, such as polyester and rayon, however, are not as ideal because they might make you sweat, dampening the fabric and, in turn, making it more porous for pathogens like SARS-CoV-2 to get in, says Willard.

You can usually find fabric online or, if you can't or don't want to spend the money on new materials, Willard suggests using sturdy cotton fabrics you have at home, like cutting up an old shirt or scarf. Some DIY-ers have even recommended converting an old bra, but Willard doesn't necessarily agree with this one. "I think there are other things to do than put a bra on your face," she says.

Once you've secured the right materials, you can sew, hand stitch, glue, or pin elastic or hair ties on the upper and lower corners of the masks (one loop of elastic on each side). These will go over your ears to secure the mask in place. Ultimately, you want the fabric to cover your nose, mouth, and chin and fit as snugly to your face as possible while still allowing you to breathe comfortably. If you have zero sewing skills, wearing a densely woven scarf that covers your nose and mouth might help, says Dr. Adalja.

When you use your mask, be sure to wash your hands well before putting it on, and leave it in place until you're ready to take it off, says Dr. Adalja. Before you take it off, wash your hands again, remove the mask by unhooking the elastic from your ears, and, toss it in the washing machine, and wash it with hot water and detergent. And then, wash your hands again. (Noticing a theme here? Washing your hands is essential for preventing the transmission of coronavirus.)

Bottom line: Mask-wearing isn't currently recommended for the general public, but that may change very soon. So DIY-ing might be your next quarantine activity.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it’s possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.

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