DIY Face Masks: Materials to Use and How to Make Them

Posted On: April 23, 2020
Family hand sewing protective face masks
Up to a quarter of people with COVID-19 have no obvious symptoms, according to the CDC. This game-changing fact is why many public health officials are now recommending face masks as an additional safety measure, especially in settings like the grocery store where it's hard to guarantee a 6-foot distance at all times. But at a time when healthcare workers are struggling to find enough personal protective equipment, you can't just pick up a box of masks. We need to reserve medical-grade supplies for actual medical workers – they face a far higher risk of infection than anyone else because they're in constant close contact with the worst coronavirus cases. The rest of us just need an effective barrier in case we bump into someone with a mild or asymptomatic case. The safest and cheapest solution is to make your own cloth mask at home.

How to Properly Wear a Cloth Face Mask

To be effective, any DIY mask you use needs to meet a few requirements:
  • Be made of tightly woven 100% cotton. Hold the fabric up to bright light as a test.
  • Include at least two layers of fabric to improve protection.
  • Cover your nose and mouth. It should sit high enough on your nose that you're not accidentally drawing air through the top of the mask. Likewise, it doesn't have to cover your chin, but that may help it form a consistent barrier over your mouth as you talk or move.
  • Fit snugly against your face on all sides. A bit of a gap is ok, but it should be minimal. Ideally, you want it to fit well enough to stay in place without adjusting, but loose enough to be comfortable.
  • Allow you to breathe comfortably through your nose. If the fabric is too thick, you'll end up pulling air around the mask instead of through it.
  • Be sturdy enough to hold up to machine washing without damage.
You can improve the effectiveness of the mask by:
  • Maintaining social distancing measures! Staying away from large crowds and maintaining a 6-foot distance are much more effective than cloth masks. Masks should be an additional precaution, not a replacement.
  • Add a twist tie or paperclip to help mold the mask against your nose and reduce gaping.
  • Inserting a coffee filter between the layers of cloth to help block smaller particles.
  • Quilter's material has a dense thread count if you can find it.
  • One test found that masks with an outer layer of regular cotton and an inner layer of flannel make a good combination for filtration and breathability.

How to Properly Remove and Sterilize a Cloth Face Mask

How you take your DIY mask off and clean it between uses is just as critical for your protection as wearing it in the first place. You have to assume your mask is contaminated after every use. When removing the mask, you want to avoid cross-contamination. Here are a few tips:
  • Remove the mask without touching the outer surface.
  • Either sanitize the mask immediately or store it inside a designated receptacle until you do.
  • Don't touch your face or any other objects until you've washed your hands properly. This includes touching the outside of the container that holds your mask.
You need to sanitize the mask every time you wear it. Machine washing with laundry detergent is effective for killing coronavirus. If that's not practical, hand-washing with detergent and vigorous scrubbing may be sufficient. Five minutes in boiling water will definitely do the trick but that may shorten the lifespan of the mask. You can either air dry the mask or put it in the dryer, but make sure it's completely dry before you wear it again. Damp fabric doesn't make an effective barrier. Inspect your mask after every washing to check the integrity of the fabric. If you start seeing holes or snags in the fabric, throw the mask away.

How to Make DIY Face Masks Without Sewing

For many people, sewing knowledge went extinct around the time Home Economics budgets did. Luckily, there are options for the stitching-impaired among us. One method floating around involves cutting up a t-shirt – this is certainly better than nothing if you're short on options. However, reviews of t-shirt material are mixed and these designs only allow for a single layer of fabric. You might be better off with the "bandana" mask, and we don’t just mean tying a bandana on cops-and-robbers style. With a little extra effort, you can make a more effective solution.
  1. Find a clean bandana (or cut a piece of cotton cloth into a square 20 inches on each side).
  2. Fold the cloth in half.
  3. Fold it again in thirds along the short axis. You should now have a strip of cloth approximately 3.5 inches by 20 inches.
  4. Slide rubber bands or hair ties onto the cloth and center them about 6 inches apart.
  5. Fold the ends of the cloth around rubber bands. The cloth should now be roughly 3.5 inches by 6 inches.
  6. Tuck one side securely into the end of the other. The more deeply these ends overlap, the more likely they are to stay in place.
The result is a surgical-style DIY mask with multiple layers of cloth, snug against your face on all sides. Much better than that "holding up a stagecoach" aesthetic with two layers of fabric and three open sides.

How to Make DIY Face Masks With Sewing

There are many DIY mask patterns floating around on the internet. As long as they meet the guidelines we listed above, the CDC says any mask is better than no mask, so just pick one and go for it. Here are sewing instructions from the CDC – the result is a homemade version of a surgical mask.
  1. Cut two 10-by-6-inch rectangles of cotton fabric.
  2. Stack the pieces of fabric and fold the long sides ¼ inch. Hem.
  3. Fold the short sides ½ inch and stitch down, leaving an open sleeve for the mask fastening.
  4. Cut two pieces of ⅛-inch elastic into 6-inch long pieces.
  5. Thread one elastic piece through each sleeve with a large needle or bobby pin, then knot the ends.
  6. Try on the mask and tighten or loosen the ties of the elastic until you have a snug but comfortable fit against your skin.
  7. Gently rotate the elastic in its fabric sleeve so that the knots are tucked out of sight.
  8. Gather the sides of the mask against the elastic for the best fit. Pin/mark the elastic.
  9. Securely stitch the elastic into place in the ideal position.
If you don't have elastic on-hand, you can use hair ties or elastic headbands instead. If the only option is a string, shoelaces, or other non-elastic material, cut the ties longer and plan to tie the mask on behind your head instead of making ear loops.

Health and Safety Knowledge is Essential

For most of us, understanding topics like infectious disease transmission or respiratory personal protective equipment hasn't been very high on our priority list. Now we're all finding out that knowing is half the battle. For some professions, these subjects have always been critical to worker health and safety. That's why OSHA has emphasized training on these and other workplace hazards since their creation. Our OSHA 10 and OSHA 30 environmental health and safety courses are OSHA-authorized, online, and cost-effective. If you're coming up on required training deadlines, we can help you meet requirements from the safety of your own home. That way, you can get back to work as soon as the economy opens. We also offer cost-cutting business solutions for employers who want to ensure a well-trained workforce.

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