Is a DIY Face Mask Actually Safe?
Earlier today my sister-in-law sent me an press release from Joann craft stores. The press release detailed how Joann was responding to the COVID-19 outbreak, by donating supplies, giving away patterns, and providing resources to make DIY face masks. My first thought was about how generous it was of them to give these things away. Then my second thought was, “gosh, is a DIY face mask even safe?”
So, I went on a deep dive, reading research articles and statements from health organizations, trying to understand how effective a DIY face mask could be.
About the COVID-19 virus
The COVID-19 virus is tiny. It is 0.1 microns, that is 500 times smaller than the width of a human hair. With a virus that small, you need protective gear that can sufficiently prevent the virus from entering through the mask.
COVID-19 is spread through “respiratory droplets”. When a person who is infected and contagious coughs or sneezes they release droplets into the air that contain coronavirus. If you are too close, the virus can enter through your nose and mouth and infect you.
If you have to be in close proximity to someone who is infected, the CDC recommends N95 masks. N95 masks filter 95% of “very small” particles. It should be noted, that face masks are not recommended for normal public places. In public spaces, they recommend regular hand washing and staying 6 feet (2 meters) away from other people.
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A Cotton Mask is Not Effective Alone
A woven cotton face mask should be considered a last resort. The CDC states:
“Homemade masks are not considered personal protective equipment, since their capability to protect health care professionals is unknown. Caution should be exercised when considering this option. Homemade masks should ideally be used in combination with a face shield that covers the entire front (that extends to the chin or below) and sides of the face.
A research article published in 2015 concluded that cotton cloth face masks can actually increase the risk of infection. Fabric masks can hold in moisture and harbor diseases when not properly washed. Also, cotton cloth masks only filter out 3% of particles in the air.
What about inserting a filter?
I was unable to find a study that indicated how effective a reusable fabric mask with a filter inserted would be. However, there are a lot of protocols surrounding N95 masks.
N95 masks seal around your face, and come in different sizes. Health care professionals receive special training on how to fit them, remove them, and dispose of them without infecting themselves. They are even tested on this training.
If you were able to find an effective filter to put into a DIY face mask, it will not be sealed to your face. Because of this, you can’t know how well you are being protected.
What about knitted or crochet face masks?
If a tightly woven cotton mask is not effective, imagine how insufficient a knitted or crocheted mask would be. Both of these crafts inherently create large holes in the work that would easily let in droplets and other particles. I would assume that masks in this category would be even less effective than a cotton DIY face mask.
Why DIY Face Masks Might Still be Needed
I was very surprised to find that there is still a need for DIY face masks, even if they aren’t effective.
Extend the Use
I have several friends who are nurses. They reported that their hospital plans on using cotton masks to extend the life of N95 masks. The N95 masks have to be discarded if they become soiled. By putting a cotton mask on top, it acts as a first line of defense against tears and dirt. It also allows them to safely reuse the mask after it is removed.
Not Everyone has COVID-19
While cotton masks may be ineffective against the current pandemic sweeping the planet, they can be effective for interacting with other patients. Using cotton masks for low-risk patients allows the N95 masks to be reserved for patients with respiratory symptoms.
This is scary. Going into a hospital right now is scary. Some hospitals, especially children’s hospitals, may choose to use cotton masks on top of medical masks to make it easier on patients.
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How to Participate
This is a grassroots movement. There isn’t one single organization collecting masks or creating standards for homemade masks. The best thing to do is to contact your local hospital to find out what their needs are.
If you can sew, or want to learn, Joann has some great resources to get you started on making your own cotton fabric masks.
The most important thing to remember if you decide to help in this way, is that a cotton mask is not going to protect you well enough to resume normal public activities. Listen to your local authorities regarding behavior in public.
A Message to Designers
If you decide to create a face mask pattern, it is important to communicate how it should be used. It should be clear what it is meant to protect against.
OR if you have created a mask pattern in the past, you may want to consider updating your pattern to include a disclaimer.
I have to applaud Ravelry here. They have a new disclaimer on their website for patterns that resemble medical face masks, along with links to the proper personal protective equipment guidelines.
Also, all of the designers had notes stating that the project would not protect you against COVID-19 or other diseases. So, thank you to them too for being clear and continuing to spread good information.
I am disappointed that many of the youtube videos I watched in research for this article did not have the same disclosures.
I am amazed at all the good we are seeing in the world right now. I know that this is a scary time. And that this will change our world forever. It will take a lot of time for us to recover from the economic damage of social distancing and sheltering in place. But, I’d like to think that some of us need this time, this forced break.
I hope you find peace within yourself. And use this strange time to recharge in a way that you can’t in regular life. Embrace where you are. Fill yourself up. Connect with your family. And stay healthy.
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