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Homemade face masks 101: The ultimate guide to cloth face coverings

Homemade face masks 101: The ultimate guide to cloth face coverings
(Image credit: Getty)

Slowing the spread of the coronavirus is something we can all help with by following official health advice, staying home as much as possible, and adhering to social distancing and regular hand washing. We all need to leave the house at some point, though, whether it’s for exercise, to do a grocery shop or attend a medical appointment. 

When you do go outside, the CDC now recommends that you wear a ‘simple cloth face covering’ to slow the spread of the virus. This is to prevent pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic carriers (who may not know they have it) from passing it to others, as the virus can be spread in the droplets of water in a person’s breath. 

The CDC states that, ‘cloth face coverings fashioned from household items or made at home from common materials at low cost can be used as an additional, voluntary public health measure.’ A new study by scientists at the University of Edinburgh has revealed that homemade face masks are more effective when fitted closely to the face, and that they perform as well as surgical masks to stop your breath flowing directly forwards. Surgical masks, and respirators such as N-95s, should be reserved for healthcare workers and medical first responders.

So now that we know why we should be wearing a face mask, how can you make yours as effective as possible? Well, that’s where our guide to homemade face masks comes in. Here we’ve rounded-up all the latest expert guidance on face masks and cloth coverings, including how to make your own and what are the best face mask materials to use. Spoiler: the denser the material the better. We also walk you through how to put on and remove a mask properly, and who face masks are/aren’t suitable for.

Slow the spread

Homemade face masks and cloth face coverings: a red and white polka dot homemade mask can help to slow the spread of COVID-19

(Image credit: Getty)

Do homemade face masks protect us against COVID-19? 

According to the World Health Organization, the most common coronavirus symptoms include fever, cough, shortness of breath, muscle pain, repeated shaking with chills, a headache, sore throat, and a new loss of taste or smell. Most of those symptoms are straight-forward enough to spot, and if you need to take your temperature, you could do so with the best digital thermometers for fever monitoring. Not everyone will display all of those symptoms, and asymptomatic carriers won’t show any. There are also less common symptoms, like diarrhoea, and more serious symptoms including loss of speech.

There’s ongoing scientific debate over whether face masks, particularly homemade fabric face masks, can slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. According to the Mayo Clinic, face masks can help slow the spread of the virus if they are combined with prevention protocols like frequent hand-washing and social distancing. In other words, face masks are an add-on measure, so don’t let them lull you into a false sense of security.

A face mask offers a degree of protection if you are in close contact with a member of your household who has COVID-19, and they help protect others from infection if you are displaying Coronavirus symptoms. 

Let’s also not forget that some people are asymptomatic, which means they could have the virus and not display any symptoms. According to cloth face coverings advice published by the CDC, “This means that the virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity — for example, speaking, coughing, or sneezing — even if those people are not exhibiting symptoms.”

“In light of this new evidence, CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (eg, grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission,” the advisory states.

In its cloth face covers Q&A, the CDC says that, ‘Cloth face coverings should not be placed on young children younger than 2 years of age, anyone who has trouble breathing, or is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the cover without assistance.’

Gather materials

What are the best face mask materials?

Not all homemade face mask materials are created equal. Scientists around the globe have been conducting experiments on a whole host of common fabrics often found in your clothes wardrobe, or around your home, to discover which are the most effective at filtering microscopic particles. 

While a basic cloth face covering can stop many outgoing germs, such those expelled when you cough or sneeze (and this is important if you are carrying the disease), there specific recommendations are now starting to emerge regarding which homemade mask materials are more effective at keeping you (and others around you) safe. The most recent recommendations come from a study conducted at Northeastern University, led by Loretta Fernandez, Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

"Even for masks that might not filter out everything, a tight fit against the face significantly lowers the chances of viral droplets making it to the airway," says Fernandez. "That’s why any sort of filtering and interfacing that people can use in their masks could be highly protective. The idea is to create an efficient series of layers with bends within the fabric that make it harder for the virus to have a straight shot at a person’s nose. Every bend of that path provides more chances for the viral particles to stick to the fibers, instead of a person’s throat."

Fernandez recommends including a filter layer in your face mask. That layer could be a coffee filter, some layered toilet paper, or anything that's safe to breathe. She also states that putting a layer of nylon, such as pantyhose (tights), over the top improves the layering further.

Homemade face masks created from cotton, silk and chiffon can effectively filter out aerosol particles if they fit properly, according to a new study conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory. They found that tightly woven cotton combined with two layers of polyester-spandex chiffon filtered out the most aerosol particles (80-99% depending on particle size), with performance close to that of an N95 respiratory mask material.

The CDC's guidance is simply that your face mask include multiple layers of fabric. In an interview with the New York Times about his recent study of homemade face masks, Dr Scott Segal, Chairman of Anesthesiology at Wake Forest Baptist Health, said: “If light passes really easily through the fibers and you can almost see the fibers, it’s not a good fabric. If it’s a denser weave of thicker material and light doesn’t pass through it as much, that’s the material you want to use.”

So good face mask materials to work with include:

  • Cotton (the higher the thread count, the better)
  • Denim
  • Silk
  • Flannel weave
  • Coffee filters – add as a layer within your mask
  • Nylon or pantyhose – wear as an outer layer on top of your face mask

Make your own

We've been making our own face masks this past week, and below are the tips that have helped us to make our own masks as effective as possible.

We've been making our own face masks this past week, and below are the tips that have helped us to make our own masks as effective as possible. (Image credit: Future)

How to make your own face mask

One of the biggest issues encountered by frontline workers and those wearing masks is that they can steam up your glasses. This happens as you exhale and hot air creates condensation on lenses. GlassesUSA, which sells some of the best eyeglasses online, is also expanding its online eyewear selection by adding anti-fog lenses to its collection of online options. 

However, one of the at-home solutions to face masks which fog up glasses is to add pipe cleaner to the top nose section of your face mask. This creates less of a gap through which hot air can escape, which is also great for increasing the general effectiveness as your mask as it prevents droplets from escaping out of the top of your mask.

Another top tip for those creating face masks is to make them double sided. Not only does this effectively double the amount of protection offered by your mask by creating another barrier layer, it also can be a vital source of added security for face mask wearers. If you use a different material for the inside of your mask, this can serve as a reminder of which part of your mask is meant to go toward your mouth, and which is meant to be outward-facing. 

If you get this mixed up, you could end up putting a piece of material which has been exposed to others in grocery stores and outdoors toward your mouth, and risk potentially coming into contact with the virus yourself. Of course, it’s important to wash reusable face masks immediately after each and every use, but this added layer of security can be a huge help.

Below is the guide we’ve used to create our own face masks, which works a treat with the best sewing machines. However, the CDC also has no-sew options for making a face mask out of old t-shirts and bandanas.  

If you don’t have access to some key face masks materials, Micheals’ has a whole face mask section. However, there are also some at-home alternatives you can turn to, if you’re willing to sacrifice a few items of clothing! 

If you’re short on elastic to create ear-loops, material ties are proving increasingly popular as they don’t hurt the back of your ears. The straps from tank tops and even any bras you’re willing to part with also offer some elasticity and can prove effective substitutes to elastic ties. 

When turning to your closet to find face mask material, as a general rule, the higher the thread count the better. A study from the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory found that fabrics with tight weaves, such as high thread count cotton sheets, natural silk, chiffon weave and flannel were effective and can provide good protection from respiratory droplets.

Wear it properly

Homemade face masks and cloth face coverings: a woman leans out of a window while wearing a homemade face mask to talk to someone

(Image credit: Getty)

How to wear a face mask effectively

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are a few pointers to keep in mind when putting on and taking off a cloth face mask, as follows:

  • Step 1: Clean your hands with soap and water or hand sanitizer before touching the mask.
  • Step 2: Position your face mask over your mouth and nose.
  • Step 3: For masks with ear loops, hold the mask by the loops and place a loop around each ear. For face masks with ties, bring the mask to your nose level and and secure the ties in a bow at the back of your head.
  • Step 4: Mold or pinch the stiff edge of the mask to the shape of your nose.
  • Step 5: Pull the bottom of the mask over your mouth and chin.

Don’t touch your face mask once it’s secured and in position. If you do accidentally touch your mask, wash or sanitize your hands as soon as possible. To remove your face mask, untie it at the back or remove it by lifting off the ear loops without touching the front of the mask or your face as it may be contaminated. Wash your hands immediately after removing the mask.

Your face mask should be regularly washed with soap and water in your washing machine. The CDC has also issued laundry guidelines – here’s what the Coronavirus means for your laundry routine.

Stay safe

Homemade face masks and cloth face coverings: a family uses hand sanitizer to clean their hands while outdoors

(Image credit: Getty)

How else to protect yourself against Coronavirus

According to the World Health Organization, to prevent infection and to slow the transmission of COVID-19, do the following:

  • Wash your hands regularly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or clean them with an alcohol-based hand rub, especially after you have been in a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing.
  • Stay home if you feel unwell.
  • Refrain from smoking and other activities that weaken the lungs.
  • Practice physical distancing by avoiding unnecessary travel and staying away from large groups of people.

In terms of Coronavirus prevention protocols around your home, the CDC adds:

  • Clean AND disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily. This includes tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets, and sinks.
  • If surfaces are dirty, clean them. Use detergent or soap and water prior to disinfection.
  • Then, use a household disinfectant. Most common EPA-registered household disinfectants will work.

Millie is a former staff writer for the Top Ten Reviews brand who now works across Future's Home portfolio. Her spare time is spent traveling, cooking, playing guitar and she's currently learning how to knit. Millie loves tracking down a good deal and keeping up-to-date on the newest technology and kitchen appliances.