As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread around the world, many countries are working tirelessly to connect frontline healthcare workers with life-saving N-95 respirator masks and other personal protective equipment to aid in the prevention of COVID-19 infection. Due to the highly infectious nature of the coronavirus virus, many world governments have encouraged everyone to begin wearing a mask in order to mitigate the spread. Unfortunately, the quick onset of the pandemic has overloaded healthcare facilities and caused PPE to become scarce and rationed.

In order to protect the public and reserve scarce protective gear for healthcare workers, many countries – including most recently the United States – have recommended that individuals wearing fabric masks while in public. For many, this means wearing a homemade, do-it-yourself mask. However, are these masks made of everyday material effective in preventing infection from COVID-19? 

How Effective Are DIY, Non-Medical Face Masks?

So far, there has not been much research completed as to the effectiveness of DIY facemasks, especially in their ability to prevent infection from the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Early studies have begun to trickle in, many showing that COVID-19 can remain infectious for weeks or months when left on surfaces. The virus usually transmits via respiratory droplets either contracted directly through the air from an infected individual, or by the virus being transferred onto your hands, and then to your face.

In a study published in The Lancet in early April stated that the coronavirus could survive on cloth for at least a day and on surgical masks for up to seven days. Several days later, The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that “there is currently no evidence that wearing any kind of mask can prevent healthy people in their communities from getting a respiratory infection, including COVID-19.”

Still, some studies have found some reasons to believe that masks help. A study titled “Testing the Efficacy of Homemade Masks: Would They Protect in an Influenza Pandemic?” by Annie Davies and others recently showed that in a randomized trial of mask use found that “adherence to mask use significantly reduced the risk for infection associated with influenza-like illness… Facemasks may prevent contamination of the workspace during the outbreak of influenza or other droplet-spread communicable disease by reducing aerosol transmission.” Ultimately, the study found that homemade masks protected individuals on a factor one-half that of the high-grade surgical masks used by healthcare workers. While both reduced the spread of infection, the N-95 style surgical mask was 3 times more effective in blocking transmission than the homemade mask.

As seen above, the fact that research shows homemade masks aren’t as effective doesn’t mean that masks aren’t ineffective. In fact, some sense of protection is better than no protection. Even homemade masks can protect those around you from coming into contact with the virus. This is especially important as scientists and healthcare professionals have begun to notice that a significant portion of people with COVID-19 lack symptoms, according to the US Centers for Disease Control. 

The asymptomatic nature of infection spread is what has set COVID-19 apart from previous pandemic-level illnesses such as SARS in 2003. The fact that individuals can spread the disease without having physical symptoms means that you may never know who is walking around in public shedding the virus. 

Due to this possible spread with the coronavirus, even a DIY, homemade facemask can help to mitigate asymptomatic spread. The restriction of airflow from your mouth can stop respiratory droplets from spreading when talking, coughing, or sneezing. Keeping these larger virus particles confined to a strong fabric can prevent others from coming into contact with the disease, which reports say can linger in cold, dry air for some time after you have moved on.

Face Masks and the Social Effect

Some scientists and government officials believe that whether or not public use of face masks ultimately proves effective, the social influence of individuals walking around with face masks may help others pay more attention to social distancing measures among others. Also, having a mask on your face can help you be more aware of the unconscious touching of your mouth, eyes, and nose throughout the day. 

What Material Should I Use in My DIY Mask?

According to policy measures by the CDC, DIY masks that are made out of everyday materials should be made from two layers of tightly woven, 100% cotton fabric. For a mental picture, imagine using quilter’s material or bedsheets with a high thread count. It is important that the fabric doesn’t restrict breathing, but should be strong enough that you notice the airflow being disrupted during normal breathing from your nose and mouth. This material could range from fabric such as denim to cloth-like paper such as surgical cloth.

It is important to note that the CDC does not mention “masks” as the only means of stopping respiratory transmission. The use of the language “face coverings” in the CDC recommendation means that any face covering, such as a scarf or bandana, as long as it is wrapped tightly around the face. This option could help those who find the idea of wearing a mask off-putting or fear-inducing find an option that fits their lifestyle while protecting others.

How to Build & Use Masks Appropriately

In the days since the pandemic began, an endless stream of DIY patterns and how-to videos have popped up across the internet. For the best advice and guidance on using a face mask, following the guidance and instruction of your local and national health system is a sure bet 

Regardless of the pattern you use, it is important that the mask is worn properly to ensure that it works to the best of its ability. The CDC recommends that the face mask should fit snugly against your face when worn, not so tight as to cut into the skin, but tight enough to be noticeable. The layers should provide breathing without restriction, and should be made so that it can be washed repeatedly without damaging the structure or ability to cover your face correctly. Adding pipe cleaner or moldable piping around the edges – especially the nose – can help ensure that it fits properly over many sessions of wear. 

There are many examples of how to build and maintain a face mask for everyday use in public, including official directions given by the CDC here. Other DIY face mask makers online have added great customizations to the basic model mask such as adding an optional filter for added protection in the nasal-section of the mask.

No Matter the Mask, Follow All Recommendations to Protect One Another

While masks can offer some protection against the spread of COVID-19, they are not to be a replacement for the guidelines already given by health officials to stop the infection’s growth. Continued 20-second handwashing, cleaning of commonly-used surfaces, and avoidance of public places when sick are still to be implemented even as mask use continues to become more common. 

The fear of many health officials in recommending face masks is the false sense of security that they may give, causing some to stop following CDC protective guidelines and returning to public life as normal. The work of preventing the spread of COVID-19 is the duty of everyone in the community, and each individual should take part in all guidelines to continue to protect vulnerable populations. Together, we can overcome the threat of coronavirus and emerge as a stronger, healthier human race.