While You Wait for the Vaccine, Wear the Most Effective Mask

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Face masks have become the newest must-have fashion and function accessory during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020. In addition to our wallet, phone, and keys, face masks go along everywhere we visit. But the information from the media and even top officials has been inconsistent, making it difficult to know if you’re protected with the mask you choose.

One thing is certain, coronavirus isn’t going away anytime soon. With that in mind, we’ll all be donning the face accessories for the foreseeable future. While you can buy store bought options, most are disposable, adding to environmental waste. Reusable masks are prolific in stores and online too, but you can get the same effect at a lower cost by making your own masks, DIY style at home.

Based on a study published in Science Advances by researchers from Duke's physics department last month, there are some styles of masks that are more effective than others. Working with that information, here’s some options to consider.

Cotton Works

The research tested 14 types of masks, several of which were made from cotton. Each face mask was tested 10 times and the effectiveness was measured by participants speaking into a controlled box where droplets could then be measured. A professionally fitted N95 mask, typically reserved for medical professionals, was unsurprisingly the top performer, followed by surgical masks.

cotton face masks

However, all of the cotton options performed consistently well (defined by less than .5 droplet count). In fact, all cotton masks averaged 3.5 or lower. "This is a very powerful visual tool to raise awareness that very simple masks, like these homemade cotton masks, do really well to stop the majority of these respiratory droplets," Martin Fischer, one of the authors of the research study said.

When choosing your cotton material, make sure it is not a blend. Look into clothing and linens as sources for your fabric. In at least one study, the most effective cotton masks were constructed from two layers of high-quality, heavyweight “quilter’s cotton”. Equally effective options are two-layer masks made with thick batik fabric or a double-layer mask with an inner layer of flannel and outer layer of cotton.

There are several ways to make masks, either with ties or elastic ear loops. Your mask can be pleated, allow a pocket for a removable filter, or be more of a bowl shape that gathers on the edges. Rely on the CDC website or run a quick web search to find a pattern you like. By using cotton you already have around the house, making your own mask is inexpensive, quick, and easy. Whichever design you choose, make sure your mask fits your face without allowing gaps around the edges.

What Not to Wear

bandana mask

Although many types of basic masks rated as highly effective, there were several materials that failed to adequately stop the microparticles released during common conversation. Bandanas and knitted masks performed poorly. Neck gaiters or fleeces were the least effective of the 14 types tested in the study.

Fischer said, "We were extremely surprised to find that the number of particles measured with the fleece actually exceeded the number of particles measured without wearing any mask. We want to emphasize that we really encourage people to wear masks, but we want them to wear masks that actually work."

Other Pointers

Making your own mask is fairly quick and easy, especially if you are proficient with a sewing machine. Do follow CDC guidelines to ensure a good fit, but remember that masks do more to protect others if you are carrying a virus than they do to protect you from contracting something. With this in mind, it’s still best to stay at home or practice physical distancing if you must go into public. Also, be sure to put your mask through the washing machine after each outing, placing it directly into the washing machine when you arrive home. Once the pandemic hits the rear view mirror, your supply of masks will work when staining wood, sanding planks, or even cutting onions in the kitchen.