How to Make Your Own Face Mask for Coronavirus Protection

Updated: Sep. 03, 2020

Here's how to make an expert-approved, do-it-yourself (DIY) face mask to limit the spread of coronavirus and protect yourself from Covid-19.

In an about-face, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently urged all Americans to cover their faces when they are in public spaces to avoid the spread of the novel coronavirus. The internet is abuzz with do-it-yourself (DIY) face mask tutorials, and many good samaritans are making masks en masse to help slow the spread of Covid-19.

A YouTube search for videos about how to make coronavirus face masks reveals more than 6,000,000 hits, and there’s something for everyone depending on bandwidth and craftiness level. (U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams even has a DIY video showing people how to make these.) But why the 180-degree shift on face coverings? And are some DIY masks better than others?

Up until recently, the CDC and other health experts remained firm in their conviction that only sick people or healthcare workers should wear masks. In particular, N95 medical-grade respirator masks (they sometimes look similar, but there are key differences), should be reserved for health care providers. The latter part hasn’t changed, and N95 masks are still for healthcare providers. However, the CDC now recommends that all Americans wear cloth face coverings such as scarves and homemade masks when other social distancing measures are difficult to adhere to (e.g., at the grocery store or pharmacy). (It might be a good idea to check out this list of recommended goggles and face shields, too.)

“It was a good move,” says David Mushatt, MD, MPH, head of the infectious diseases section at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans. “The sense we get from other countries that have been doing it more is that they have been more successful at reducing the spread of Covid-19.”

Until recently, there wasn’t enough data on how the virus spreads, Dr. Mushatt notes. Now, emerging evidence suggests that Covid-19 can spread by talking, coughing, sneezing and possibly breathing. This can all be possible even when the person with coronavirus has no symptoms at all. (Here are the Covid-19 symptoms to watch for.) Spread of the virus is more likely to occur in close quarters, and tests in general are in short supply. (The Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved any at-home tests for Covid-19.) It’s nearly impossible at this time to know if someone is infected.

When it comes to homemade masks, remember, they don’t have to be perfect. “Perfection is the enemy of good,” Dr. Mushatt says. “Your mask just has to be something over your face that can catch the larger droplets that people exhale when they cough, sneeze and talk.”

This move is designed to help lower the risk of spreading Covid-19, not eliminate it altogether, he adds.

mother and daughter making face masks at hometi-ja/Getty Images

DIY Masks: An overview

The CDC suggests that homemade masks fit snugly but comfortably and be secured with ties or ear loops. In addition, they should include multiple layers of fabric and not impair breathing.

The CDC offers some sew and no-sew DIY mask tutorials. One example calls for a T-shirt and scissors. To craft a mask, cut 7 or 8-inches across the bottom of the shirt (both front and back). This results in a rectangle. Next cut out a 6 or 7-inch rectangle within the original. Remove and discard the cut-out, and then cut the tie strings at the ends so they can be fastened. That’s it. You now have a mask with strings that can be tied over your head and around your neck. (If you’re uncomfortable with traditional face masks, you can try one of these neck gaiters instead.)

Get creative with your DIY mask

Cathy White, a retired financial services professional in Staten Island, New York, returned from a trip in mid-March only to find that New York was out of many essential supplies. She had to get creative when she heard she needed to wear a mask to go grocery shopping. She turned to YouTube to learn how to make a mask using paper towels, staples, rubber bands, and paper clips.

Here’s how she does it:

First, fold a paper towel in half, White explains. Next, fold it like an accordion from side to side (see photos). Make a small fold at both ends of the paper towel where the rubber bands will be placed. Insert runner bands behind the fold and staple them in place at both ends.

It’s that simple, she says. White added one innovation for comfort. “I put rubber bands behind my ears and after spending 20 minutes in the supermarket, it hurt,” she says. “I used a paper clip to pull the rubber bands off the back of my ears and it was much, much better.”

Another plus: It’s disposable.

White’s sister, Karen McGrath, a mom of two in Ronkonkoma, New York, made face masks for first responders after 9-11 and is now back at it with a passion. She broke out her sewing machine and has made 200 so far that she plans to distribute where they are needed most. She uses flannel to make filters within her masks, providing multiple layers. They are not meant to be used in place of N95 respirator masks, but they can be used on top of them, she says.

If you are not even slightly crafty, that’s OK too, says Len Horovitz, MD, a pulmonary specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “A scarf is fine and so is a T-shirt,” he says. The less porous the fabric, the better, he adds. “Thicker fabrics are better than thin ones.” (Here are some more tips on materials you can use to make your DIY face mask.)

It’s also a good idea to find a mask you can wear without irritating your face, as masks are the new normal and will be for the foreseeable future. “Masks…don’t leave home without them,” says Dr. Horovitz.

DIY face mask for coronavirus preventionCourtesy Cathy White

DIY masks may work better than no masks

Homemade masks and scarves are not fail-safe and they do pose some risks, Dr. Mushatt says. “Your mask can be contaminated on the outside so if you touch it and touch your eye, you can become infected,” he explains. “Clean your hands every time you touch your mask or take it off.” What’s more, some tiny aerosol droplets can get through some surfaces, he says. Be sure to not make these other face mask mistakes.

An April 2020 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggests that cotton and surgical masks are ineffective in blocking the transmission of Covid-19 via cough droplets from infected patients. The researchers noted the outside areas of the mask were positive for Covid-19 and the inner surfaces were negative. However, the study did not test N95 respirator masks and it does not portray the actual transmission of infection. Therefore, further research is warranted to determine whether face masks can actually reduce the spread of Covid-19 from those without symptoms or those with Covid-19 who are not coughing.

Until then, a DIY mask may be better than no mask. “Don’t let your guard down,” Dr. Mushatt cautions. “Clean your hands and try and stay six feet away from others, and don’t go out too much if you can avoid it.”

Key considerations for novice mask makers include material, fit, breathability and care. Don’t use HEPA filters from a vacuum to make a mask, Dr. Mushatt warns. “Human breath is weaker than a vacuum’s force and if you try to use a vacuum bag, you could suffocate.”

It’s also important that your mask fit correctly, he says. “If it is too loose or has too many gaps, air can get in through the sides.”

Cleaning your mask is another consideration, Dr. Horovitz adds. “If you are walking outside and didn’t see anyone and your home is clean, you don’t need to wash it but if you have been touching the mask then it’s a good idea.” Regular machine washing should do the trick, he says. (Here’s what you need to know about washing your clothes and coronavirus.)

Dr. Mushatt says plastic masks can be cleaned with disinfectant wipes or bleach. Next, read what doctors want you to know about face masks, N95 respirators, and the best ways to avoid Covid-19.

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