FAQ: Store Bought & Homemade Masks For COVID-19 & How To Make Them

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two young girls wearing cloth masks

The world is in the middle of a pandemic, perhaps the greatest pandemic of our generation. It’s no use trying to sugarcoat or soften the blow. We are all responsible for helping stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus with self-isolation, social distancing, working from home, and keeping ourselves and our surroundings clean and germ-free.

Yet, part of self-isolation is that an occasional trip to the grocery store, pharmacy, or doctor’s office is required. As the virus is transmitted mostly through airborne ejecta ( such as saliva when coughing, sneezing, talking), face masks are critical for frontline health workers and emergency responders to stay safe and healthy and able to treat those that are affected by the virus.

This has led to a shortage of masks available at most retailers and medical supply centers across the world. Recently, to alleviate the pressure, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended making your own cloth face mask.

As per the CDC, April 3 2020:
We now know from recent studies that a significant portion of individuals with coronavirus lack symptoms (“asymptomatic”) and that even those who eventually develop symptoms (“pre-symptomatic”) can transmit the virus to others before showing symptoms. 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 (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.

Because of this, and throughout the previous weeks of the pandemic, we’ve been asked quite a few questions about the safety, validity, and effectiveness of these homemade masks versus store-bought ones that are designed for medical use.

We’ve put together this helpful FAQ to answer your questions, and show you the science that backs it up.

Do I Need A N95 Or Surgical Medical Mask?

Simple answer: No.

While medical masks and surgical masks are very effective, they are also specialized equipment. You’ve probably heard on the news lately that the world is facing a shortage of medical-grade masks, and many industries such as racing teams, car manufacturers, even the homegrown 3D printing model makers are all pitching in to help.

By making your own cloth-based mask for limited usage, you are freeing up the desperately short supply of medical masks to go to the immunocompromised and to the doctors and nurses that need them. 

Will A Cloth Mask Protect Me? 

No, it will protect others from you. You may be healthy, asymptomatic (infected with COVID-19 but not showing symptoms), or starting to show symptoms of illness, and wearing a cloth mask in public when you absolutely have to leave your home will reduce and slow the spread of COVID-19.

The principle of any mask that goes over your mouth and nose is filtration. We use filters every day, often without thinking about them as such. Pouring a pot of pasta through a colander to drain off the water? A very crude, but accurate, demonstration of a filter. The water passes through because it’s finer than the pasta. 

This is all to say that if everyone wears a mask, we will all be better protected. Combined with hand washing and staying at home, this means we can win this fight quicker and get back to our normal lives.

How Will A Cloth Masks Help Prevent the Spread of COVID19?

A homemade cloth mask is effective in blocking large particulates, such as airborne saliva and mucus, pollens, and even most dirt and dust particles. The tighter the weave of the cloth, the more effective the mask. 

It is also just as effective at preventing those same particulates from infecting others, as some people may carry the virus and never show any symptoms. These are often called “silent carriers” because they are asymptomatic. 

Note: beards reduce the effectiveness of face masks. A proper seal around the nose and mouth is important for your mask to be effective. 

Sew and No Sew Face Mask Instructions

Another way to increase protection is to make your mask multiple layers, such as with the bandana mask suggested by the CDC:

Sewn Cloth Face Covering CDC Tutorial Sewn Cloth Face Covering CDC Tutorial Quick Cut T-shirt face covering CDC tutorial Bandana face covering CDC tutorial Bandana face covering CDC tutorial

Via: CDC

What Does Doffing and Donning Mean?

Doffing and donning refers to the procedure for putting on and removing PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). It is a very important procedure all medical professionals follow each time they put on and remove PPE in a medical setting. 

To keep it simple for the purposes of reducing the spread of COVID-19:

  1. Wash your hands thoroughly before you put on your mask
  2. Place your mask by tying it on or putting the elastics behind your ears, fitting the mask to the bridge of your nose if possible (the tighter the mask is to your nose/face, the better protection)
  3. Remove your mask without touching the exterior of the mask
  4. Put your mask in the wash and wash your hands immediately after

Can Viruses Pass Through Cloth Masks?

Viruses are so small that we can’t see them with the naked eye. It is very possible that a virus will pass through your cloth mask. 

However, in specific with COVID-19, its “infection vector” is via moist droplets, mostly saliva from an infectious person coughing. This is where the cloth serves two purposes.

  1. A droplet contains tens, maybe hundreds of the virus cells, and COVID-19, according to the science and research so far, requires a significant number of virus cells to properly infect.
  2. A droplet is much, much bigger than an air molecule, and cloth, by its very nature, is moisture absorbent. 

By having a multiple-layer cloth mask, the virus and the droplets containing it are caught on the outer layer, and cannot pass through into your mouth and lungs. The same is true if you are a silent carrier, preventing the virus droplets from penetrating and entering the local air around you.

Homemade Mask Materials

Published March 20th by Standford Medicine for anesthesiologists facing mask shortages, they also recommended checking out How To Make A Face Mask

bar chart from standford medicine showing mask material effectiveness

Okay, So What About Other Areas Of My Face?

This is why doctors and scientists and every available expert on the subject has recommended that you constantly wash your hands and don’t touch your face

The Primary Way To Get COVID-19 Is Your Mouth & Nose

Two thirds of your face is composed of your mouth and nose. COVID-19 primarily infects through both, as they have the most direct path to your lungs. This is the entire reason behind using homemade face masks and coughing with your mouth closed if you need to cough during this pandemic.

Viruses Can Also Infect You Through Your Eyes

The other major third of your face is your eyes. This is why when you see news of doctors, nurses, and others in hospitals or testing stations, they’re wearing face shields that cover them hairline to neck. 

This is also why all the experts are urging hand washing and not touching your face. Many of us will unconsciously have our hands near our eyes multiple times a day. Waking up, rubbing at your eyes to get the sleep out. Adjusting a pair of sunglasses. Scratching the bridge of your nose. All of these activities bring your hands to your eyes.

However, it does take a much larger population of viruses to infect you through your eyes. This is because, as COVID-19 is a respiratory virus, it first has to work its way through the rest of your body to get to the lungs. During that time, your immune system has a much longer time to detect and attack the virus, killing it.

How Do I Sterilize Or Clean My Face Mask?

Store-Bought

If you’re using a store-bought surgical mask, you carefully remove it and throw it in the garbage. Washing your hands after throwing it out. Most medical-grade or store-bought masks are single use only. 

Homemade Cloth Mask

If you’re using a cloth mask you made yourself, depending on the frequency of use or time outside of isolation, you should carefully remove it by the straps, making sure not to touch other parts of your face. You should at the very least wash the interior and exterior of the mask with hot water and soap, or throw it into the washing machine on a hot cycle with detergent.

As well, after handing your mask, before handling anything else, wash your hands with a good helping of soap and warm-to-hot water for at least 20 seconds. 

Why Is Soap & Water The Recommended Sterilization?

Grease & Soap

The easiest way to explain is to use a greasy frying pan analogy. So, you’ve made your breakfast of bacon and eggs, watched the latest news while eating, and come back to the kitchen to wash up. 

Your plate, orange juice glass, knife and fork all clean off with a bit of hot water and a scrubbing brush. However, your frying pan is stubbornly staying greasy, no matter how much you scrub at it. 

Your frying pan, in this analogy, is the exterior shell of the COVID-19 virus, which is a thin but strong shell of bonded lipids, or fats, that protect the virus. 

So, to get your frying pan clean, what do you do? You put a drop of dish soap in the middle of the pan, get the brush wet, and give it a good scrub. Rinse it off, and suddenly your pan is clean and sparkling.

Soap Is A Fat Blaster

Soap, due to how it’s made, has a complex organic chemical structure that makes it both soluble in water, giving you lather and bubbles, as well as being able to dissolve lipid bonds because of what is known as the “polar head” of the chemical chain. 

When you scrub the pan, or in this case rub your hands together, you cause agitation. This agitation, along with the natural grip your skin has, causes friction, which lifts dirt, viruses, bacteria, and the like from the skin.

And when COVID-19 is lifted away from protection, the polar head of the soap molecule can attack it from all sides, as it is tumbled and turned by the agitation. The fatty lipid shell around the virus breaks down. The virus itself, which is surprisingly fragile, will then either be decimated by the agitation, or rinsed down the drain.

Some of the links I post on this site are affiliate links. If you go through them to make a purchase, I will earn a small commission (at no additional cost to you). However, note that I’m recommending these products because of their quality and that I have good experience using them, not because of the commission to be made.

About Simon Bertram

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