Updated: Apr 12, 2020
I am revising this article in light of the new CDC recommendations.
Now, I am neither a medical professional nor an epidemiologist; so, I am going to source information from people that are. I am, however, an avid craftsperson. Lately, I have been seeing DIY ('Do it yourself') projects for face masks which are supposed to protect people from getting sick.
But do many of these masks even work? And if you are making some, what materials should you use? Let's find out!
Surgical Masks Vs N-95 Respirator Masks
So many people are going out of their way to empty stores of surgical masks or the type of "sick masks" that you are likely to find at your local pharmacy. These masks are designed to help prevent splashes and splatter which may contain bacteria and viruses. They are limited and do not provide full protection, but they do offer a barrier that provides some level of protection. Will surgical masks prevent you from getting sick?
Not really. At least not according to the CDC.
The reason being is that viruses are small, and surgical masks are not good at filtering small particles out of the air. This means that coronavirus, and pretty much any other virus, can pass through far easier.
The N-95 Respirator masks, on the other hand, are designed specifically to cover your nose and mouth tightly. You then breathe through their filters, which filter out 95% of all particles, including small particles at 0.3 microns. This means that an N-95 mask is able to block viruses from entering when fitted properly most of the time. These masks are the best when it comes to preventing viruses from infecting healthcare workers. The average person should not hoard these and provide them instead to healthcare workers.
While the prior recommendations seem to be that you should not wear a mask unless you are sick, the CDC is altering that. They believe that everyone should be wearing maks when they leave the house. But if there is no evidence that it prevents you from catching COVID-19, why is the CDC altering its view on this?
This is mainly due to the fact that many people who have COVID-19 may be asymptomatic, or may otherwise not yet be showing symptoms. During this time, they are still infectious, and with Coronavirus being 3 times more infectious as the flu, it is important that everyone prevents themselves from spreading germs. It is believed that you can transmit the virus up to 48 hours before you even show any symptoms.
“That’s important, because now you have individuals that may not have any symptoms that can contribute to transmission, and we have learned that, in fact, they do contribute to transmission,” says Dr. Robert Redfield from the CDC.
Since the main thing we are trying to do is postpone the number of people who have COVID-19, wearing a mask can help reduce the number of people you might spread the virus to. This is because when you sneeze or cough, it is trapped within the mask, which should be washed when you get home.
The CDC is also advising people to use masks to prevent other illnesses as well as COVID-19, such as the common cold and the flu, which can occur at the same time as the COVID-19. These comorbidities can cause a lot more people to die as a result, and protecting other people from any of these right now is necessary as we try to flatten the curve.
It may seem good that everyone is wearing masks and preventing the spread of the disease. However, that does not come without some issues that need to be addressed. For instance, masks are not perfect, and some masks may be better than others when it comes to protecting against the spread.
Some experts believe that this might have a backlash as well, as many people might feel protected due to the mask, and engage in more risky behaviors.
A 2015 study has also been done on the effectiveness of cloth masks, in particular, the ones that you would likely buy off of a site like Etsy. This study showed that wearing a cloth mask made you 13 times more likely to catch the flu than if you were wearing a surgical mask. A lot of this has to do with issues of fit, as well as cloth, being a poor filter as opposed to surgical masks.
Cloth masks also have a risk if you touch the mask, don't wash the mask, share it, etc, as it is meant to be reused. This too can cause you or someone else to catch the virus or some other sickness. So always make sure you wash your hands after touching it.
Cloth one may be useful
When wearing a mask according to CDC guidelines, You need to make sure that it is thick enough to prevent many particles from going through. Maybe about 4 layers of cotton. If you are going to buy one, make sure you go for a thicker one that is able to provide more protection.
Spread can occur from virus particles attached to the cloth. If someone else touches, grabs, or shares the cloth, the virus can be transmitted. Additionally, a sick person could still force viral particles through the mesh when coughing. Healthy people that have come in contact with an infected person, can also expel viral particles from the surface of the mask. This is why hospital face masks are supposed to be disposable and not reusable. The surface could be contaminated.
"In sum, very poor filter and fit performance of cloth masks described earlier and very low effectiveness for cloth masks in healthcare settings lead us conclude that cloth masks offer no protection for healthcare workers inhaling infectious particles near an infected or confirmed patient."
That said, the CDC seems to say something different about the use of the mask.
"The value of the mask isn’t necessarily to protect you from getting sick, although it may offer some protection. It’s to protect you from other people. So when someone who’s infected is wearing a mask, they’re much less likely to transmit infection." claims Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration
What you can do
The best thing to do to prevent catching or spreading infection is to wash your hands, practice physical distancing, and keep your hands off your face. In fact, washing your whole body at least once a day, including your face, will help most of all. This can help to wash off any viruses or bacteria you may have been in contact with at the grocery store, or at work.
But according to the CDC and other places, making a mask can be helpful if you plan on going out for short periods of time, and can help protect other people from your germs. But what material is best when it comes to this? Well, a company called Smart Air actually went out of their way to see which household materials might be best when it comes to filtering out viruses at 0.02 microns in size.
A double layer of a dishcloth was found to be the best alternative to the surgical mask when it came to filtering out particles, which was successful to 97% of particles. However, the materials were so thick that it made it uncomfortable and not breathable.
As a result, a double layer of pillowcases or 100% cotton t-shirt material as a mask is the best to prevent 60-70% of virus particles and is also breathable so it can be comfortable to wear long term. A mask that you can only wear for a short period before it becomes too uncomfortable to use, or a mask that is not fitted properly, is useless.
Single-use masks are best as they are disposable. As a result, they have less of an opportunity to spread germs and viruses. But since they are in such low supply, buying reusable ones seems to be the next best option. But the best thing to do would be to stay home and do physical distancing. Try not to go into a crowded space unless required. That will help you better than any mask.
If you are to wear a reusable cloth mask, make sure to wash it often and wash your hands after touching it. If you need to find a quick makeshift mask to wear if you need to leave the house quickly, the Surgeon General has you covered. Watch his video on Facebook to learn more.
Check out this video from the World Health Organization for more information: