Can homemade masks protect you against coronavirus?
We are currently living through a truly unprecedented time in human history. Never before has the world faced such a crisis as it currently is with the COVID-19 outbreak. Almost every country across the globe is facing rising infection rates and highly restrictive social distancing measures, which have been implemented to help and have a positive effect on helping to reduce the spread of this deadly disease.
To combat the spread of coronavirus even further, many people are beginning to wear a face mask and other face coverings when going out in public. However, with medical staff in some areas and countries facing shortages of clinically-approved masks and respirators, people are resorting to using homemade face coverings instead.
One thing for certain is that there can be no questioning the effectiveness of a medical-grade face mask, respirator, and surgical mask. Thanks to the high-filtration levels that these masks provide the wearer, they have been proven to significantly reduce the chances of being infected with the coronavirus.
Homemade masks, on the other hand, are still subject to much debate…
The effectiveness of homemade masks…
During the initial stages of the outbreak, the general public in much of the western world was told that there was not a need to wear a mask when out and about in public. When it first appeared, many scientists were unaware of just how contagious COVID-19 was, which was why face masks were only deemed necessary for people coming into regular contact with a sick person.
However, as the virus continued to take hold and the number of infections grew, this advice slowly changed. Now, many countries are encouraging the public to wear cloth face coverings any time that they are going to be coming into close proximity with other people.
This change came about as scientists discovered evidence that showed that the virus was asymptomatic; meaning many people carrying the disease were completely unaware. This meant that many people were walking around, unwittingly passing COVID-19 on through simply talking and breathing.
With the virus being transmitted by minuscule droplet particles that we exhale, covering our mouths and noses can help to reduce the number of these particles that enter the environment. However, choosing what we cover our faces with is vital in the effectiveness of the mask. Whilst most cloth masks can catch the bigger droplets from a cough or sneeze, research has only tentatively revealed their effectiveness in catching the smaller droplets known as aerosols.
It is important to remember that wearing a mask is not primarily about protecting yourself from catching coronavirus, but instead about protecting others that you might come into contact with. Therefore, the more people who are wearing some form of a face mask, the lower the chances of the general population has passed it on to each other.
Of course, whilst professionally manufactured masks will have to meet in-depth and strict guidelines before they can go into production, homemade masks do not undergo such interrogation.
What materials do homemade masks use?
Since the lockdown began, many citizens across the globe have begun to get creative and use their downtime to design and craft their own face masks. For some people, simply wrapping a scarf around their mouth and nose a few times, or repurposing a bandana from a cowboy fancy dress costume, has been the extent of their masks, but many others have dusted off the sewing machine and built a more robust mask.
In 2013, researchers at the University of Cambridge tested a wide range of common materials found around the house to see how well they faired when tested against surgical masks. The test was conducted in response to influenza and each material was tested on bacteria that was 0.02 microns in size, which is five times smaller than coronavirus.
The results were quite surprising and the team of researchers found that against a bacteria that was just 0.02 microns in size, a standard surgical mask helped to capture 89% of the particles. In comparison, regular household items they tested were:
- Vacuum Cleaner Bag, which was able to capture 86% of the particles
- Dish Towel, which was 73% effective
- Cotton blend t-shirt, which was 70% effective
- Antimicrobial pillowcase, which was 68% effective
- Linen bed sheets, which were 62% effective
- Regular pillowcase, which was 57% effective
- Silk, which was 54% effective
- 100% cotton t-shirt, which was 51% effective
- Scarf, which was 49% effective
These figures mean that apart from the scarf, these homemade masks were able to prevent at least 50% of particles from passing through – meaning that a homemade mask is near twice as effective compared to not wearing one.
Whilst each material was tested over the course of a single layer, the same test revealed that doubling up did increase the effectiveness slight but made it harder to breathe through; meaning they were not suitable for prolonged use.
When it comes to design, there is not one that stands out above the rest in terms of homemade masks. A quick search online will show you various different methods of how to make your own face mask, but research has shown that as long as you are covering your nose and mouth completely, then you will be able to reduce the risk of you spreading the coronavirus disease.
Although some of these designs require the use of a sewing machine, there are many out there which do not. Some simply just require the use of a pair of scissors and an old (and clean) t-shirt that you do not mind sacrificing.
If you are going to make your own facemask at home, then it is important to consider the material that you are using. You will want it to be providing as much protection as possible but it is vital that it remains comfortable to wear and does not restrict your breathing in any form.
If you are not feeling comfortable making your own face mask, then there are a range of existing products that you could use. Standard DIY masks that you can find in most hardware stores will be able to offer you some level of protection against small particles, as can neoprene cycling masks – some of which are available as N95 or N99 grade, meaning they can filter 95% or 99% of particles in the air.
How to wear and maintain your face mask?
No matter whether you are using a homemade mask, a shop-bought mask, or a surgical grade mask it is important that you follow some key steps to ensure that it is working as efficiently as possible. For a mask to work as intended, it needs to fit closely to your face and fully cover your nose and mouth – without restricting your breathing.
Before you put the face mask on, or take it off, you should thoroughly clean your hands using soap and water or hand sanitiser. When you do put it on your face, use the straps to place it over your face, and if it has a nose bridge carefully adjust it so it is comfy.
When taking it off, do not touch the cloth part of the mask and only use the straps as you do not want to accidentally contaminate yourself or any surface in your home. Depending on the material used, you can wash and reuse the mask as many times as you would like, although some of the medical-grade masks are designed to only be used once.
Ideally, if your face mask is made from some form of cloth then you will be able to wash it after every single use. Although experts do say that if you are only using it to visit the shop quickly and it is not soiled or dirty then it is safe to continue to wear on multiple uses before requiring a wash.
To clean a homemade mask made from cloth, you can place it in the wash just as you would with your clothes and the warm water and soap will be able to kill any coronavirus or other bacteria that is on it. To help ensure you always have some form of protection, it is a good idea to have more than one mask, so you can still wear one whilst the other is being cleaned.
Risks of wearing homemade masks
It is important to remember that a face mask, in particular a homemade face mask, do not make you invincible and you will still be at risk of catching coronavirus. A homemade mask will provide you with some degree of protection, particularly when compared to a surgical mask and respirator.
Wearing a homemade mask is also not a substitute for good hygiene and the best way to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and keep yourself safe is to practice social distancing. Alongside that, you should get into the habit of regularly washing your hands with soap and water any time you come into contact with other people or go outside.
The benefits of professional masks
Whilst the surgical mask is really much use for the general public as they need to be thrown away after a few hours of use, there is a range of professional, purpose-built masks on the market to purchase. This mask is designed to keep the wearer safe from airborne particles, such as coronavirus, and offer increased filtration compared to a homemade mask.
Quite often, these professional masks are designed to securely fit the contours of your face and protect the area around your mouth and nose from contact with the outside air. Using specifically designed layers of filtration, these masks help to significantly reduce the number of particles that pass through – ensuring you are able to breathe the cleanest air possible.
The multiple layers of these masks are very effective and many of them use a special activated carbon filter which is designed to be the ultimate barrier between your face and the virus. Typically made in a honeycomb style, the carbon fabric is able to stop any pollutants and allergens from being breathed in or out.
Whilst carbon filter face mask is very effective, it is important to remember that, just like a homemade mask, they are not a replacement for industrial-strength masks and respirators. For key workers and medical staff who are coming into regular contact with patients infected with COVID-19, they will need to ensure that they are wearing correct surgical-grade masks.
So which mask should you wear, homemade, or, purpose-built?
When it comes to choosing which mask you should be wearing, or whether you should be wearing one at all, the debate has been ongoing since the coronavirus outbreak began. However, as tests have shown even a simple covering such as wrapping a scarf around your face and nose can provide nearly 50% more protection than leaving your face exposed.
For health care workers, the evidence is clear. They need to be wearing certified, surgical-grade face masks of N95 or higher. However for the average person who is practising social distance then any form of face mask is encouraged to help spread the disease.
A homemade mask will not be able to fully protect you from either catching the coronavirus or passing it on to other people that you come into contact with. If used correctly and properly fitted to your face, they can, however, help to reduce the likelihood and ensure the spread is significantly reduced.
Deciding which mask you should wear will depend on the level of social interaction that you engage in, as well as what makes you feel most secure.