How to make a homemade face mask

Fri, 04/03/2020 - 6:30pm
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Should you wear a facemask? So far, the recommendation for the general public has been no. But that may change. On Tuesday, March 31, all indications pointed to the CDC reversing its previous recommendation that people not wear masks.

Arguments against wearing masks include the possibility of improper use, a false sense of security, and the resultant relaxing of the protocols already put in place — social distancing and hand washing. But the most strident argument is that if everyone were to don a facemask, the already dwindling supply of bona fide, medical-grade masks available to health care workers would become even more severely strained than it already is.

Dr. Nicole Alexander Scott, head of the R.I. Department of Health, announced on March 31, during Gov. Gina Raimondo’s daily press briefing on COVID-19 that all healthcare workers in Rhode Island are now required to wear medical masks to protect themselves and the patients they are working with.

We’ve been told we’re at war and in times of war, beyond planting Victory Gardens, there have always been crafters, mainly women, who have risen to the occasion to roll bandages and knit hats, scarves, and socks for soldiers – whatever is needed. Now there are groups galvanizing on social media to make face masks.

There is even at least one team on Block Island making them — although not in true team style due to social distancing. Mary Stover, whose granddaughter spent 69 days in a neonatal intensive care unit, has made 28 masks to date — her goal is 50. Stover told The Block Island Times that Kaylan McAleer was collecting masks to be donated to a NICU where the nurses need additional masks to wear in front of the babies. “We just started making them,” said Stover. “They’re all different colors. You get a little artistic.”

Forbes magazine recently published an article on the subject of making masks with links to patterns and an analysis of the effectiveness of various materials in blocking viruses. In just the past week there has been an astronomical increase in the number of groups making masks across the country and a proliferation of how-to videos on platforms such as YouTube.

On his Clean Air Blog, Paddy Robertson, CEO of Smart Air, (www.smartairfilters.com) presents a data analysis performed at Cambridge University on the effectiveness of various materials in providing a barrier to bacteria and viruses. They “shot” particles through different fabrics and then tabulated the results.

As a reference point, surgical masks blocked 97 percent of the particles. In second place was a vacuum cleaner bag at 95 percent. In third place was a dishtowel, called a tea towel in the UK, at 83 percent. Also listed were cotton t-shirts, sheets, linen, and silk materials. This data was for a one-micron particle, but the coronavirus is 10 times smaller. So, the researchers tested the same materials with particles that were one half the size of the coronavirus.

Using the smaller size, the surgical mask fell to 89 percent, the tea towel to 73, and the t-shirt to 51 percent.

They then doubled the fabric and tested again. They also rated the materials as to breathability. Bye bye vacuum cleaner bag. The conclusion was that the best materials to use were cotton t-shirts, and other all cotton materials. A double layer of t-shirt cotton can block out 69 percent of the smallest particles tested.

Homemade masks may not be medical grade, but they can provide some protection and help “flatten the curve,” or just extend the life of a medical-grade mask by fitting over it. They are easily made either with a sewing machine or just stitched by hand.

If you can sew on a button, you can make a mask. They seem to come in two types — one with pleats across the front, which seems more suitably made with a woven cotton, and that may be used over a surgical mask, and one that has a curved seam going down the middle from the top of the nose to the chin, which is probably a better bet for something stretchy like a t-shirt. There is a free pattern for the latter type at www.freesewing.org, called a “Fu Face Mask.”

Most designs call for a loop of elastic that goes over the ears, but as anyone on Block Island knows, elastic has a short life in a humid environment, and unless one sews, it’s not a supply likely to have on hand. Plus, retailers are reportedly out. So, what are some hacks? You can substitute the elastic loop with fabric ties, (cut the hem off your t-shirt and they are already done), or shoelaces. Evidently, one can cut apart a bungee cord and find elastic there. You could even use a ponytail elastic.

Stover says her son-in-law, a nurse on the front lines in Boston, prefers fabric ties over elastic for long-time wear as the elastic becomes irritating, and it’s easy to loop the ties over another mask.

Unless specifically requested, medical facilities may shun donations of masks for now, but that may change if supplies run short, but that shouldn’t stop you from making some for your family and friends.