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Cloth Face Masks: What to Know

home made face mask
Hansa Bhargava, MD - Blogs
By Hansa D. Bhargava, MDBoard-certified pediatricianApril 3, 2020
From the WebMD Archives

As you may be hearing in the news, experts may soon be recommending that all of us wear masks in public. There’s a growing body of evidence suggesting that it could be a wise move. Researchers from Yale compared data from countries where mask usage is common against countries where it is not and found that the death rate from COVID-19 is up to 10% lower in the countries with masked populations. Whether “masks for all” becomes an official recommendation in the US or not, at this point, if something MAY be effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19, it’s probably time to do it.

However, it’s important that you do not try to buy surgical or N95 masks! Given the dangerous shortage of protective equipment for healthcare workers on the frontlines, it is vitally important that we save surgical masks and N95 masks for those doctors, nurses, and others who are exposed to high levels of the virus.  

That being said, you can still make cloth masks, or order them, for yourself or family. Studies have shown that cloth masks may help with spread of infection when used in conjunction with hand washing and physical distancing.

As a mom of two kids myself, I started looking into this a few days ago. There are several options, it seems: you could go the DIY route (basic instructions here); or you could buy them, whether from people in your communities who are selling them, or on websites, like etsy.

What type of cloth mask could work?

One study done in 2013 showed that 100% cotton t-shirts could have 69% effectiveness in protecting against organisms that are sized similar to flu viruses, and linen has 60-61%. But since COVID-19 is so new, we don’t have data about the levels of protection against this particular virus.

When choosing a fabric, one doctor suggested a “light” test, to see how effective different cloths might be – the less light that passes through the mask, the more effective it is. In fact, this doctor demonstrates how to make masks from old bras! (this doctor’s YouTube video is here)

Whatever kind of fabric you choose, keep these best practices in mind:

  • 2-3 ply masks make sense, as the extra fabric helps filter out particles.
  • The fit of the mask is key: you need to make sure it covers the mouth and nose properly, and that it doesn’t slip from that area too often.
  • Putting a vacuum filter, or even a coffee filter, between layers of fabric may help as it causes some electrostatic friction which may ‘trap’ particles in the mask so you won’t breathe them. If you go this route, make sure that the mask has a pocket that will allow you to take out the filter when you need to wash the mask. Note that there is very little science around this idea – it’s just based on common sense at this point.
  • Washability of the mask is important. Remember, to sterilize, you need to use the hot water cycle in the washer, and heat dry. For this reason, synthetic fabrics may not be good.
  • Make sure you don’t touch the mask when you wear it. It may have contaminants on the surface. Leave it on until you get home and wash your hands after you do take it off.
  • Take off your mask when you get home. Place it in a plastic bag until you’re ready to do laundry. Masks should be treated as dirty and contaminated after each use.

One last thought as we venture into the “masked” new world –

Although wearing a mask can potentially help prevent the spread of infection, it should be considered an add-on, not a replacement, for physical distancing and hand hygiene. Staying away from others and vigilant hand-washing are truly the pillars of prevention, and have been proven to be effective in ‘flattening the curve” and decreasing the flow of people to our hospitals.

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About the Author
Hansa D. Bhargava, MD

Hansa Bhargava, MD, is Chief Medical Officer at Medscape Education and a board-certified pediatrician. She is the author of Building Happier Kids: Stress-busting Tools for Parents. With expertise in parenting, mental health, and pregnancy, she has helped develop the WebMD Baby App and WebMD Pregnancy App. A regular contributor to Forbes, she is frequently interviewed by major news outlets on issues of health and well-being in children. In addition to her work at Medscape Education, she has collaborated with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and is an elected executive member of the AAP Committee on Communications and Media.

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