A Straight-Up DIY Mask Update:

The CDC says go ahead and make one.

Tazwell Brandabur

The Charter News


After several months of discouraging the use of masks by the general public, federal health officials now recommend that citizens wear improvised masks while “in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.”

The announcement came from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), on April 4th. Authorities had previously advised against civilian use of masks, as health care professionals needed all available medical-grade masks, and the already less-effective improvised masks risked increased transmission due to user error.

The new guidelines come in response to new research from Iceland suggesting that roughly half of people infected with the SarsCOV-2 virus are asymptomatic, which means they carry and spread the virus to others, without ever displaying symptoms. 

 “With social distancing, we’re assuming everyone is sick,” notes Eli Perencevich, Infection Prevention Specialist at the University of Iowa, in an interview with Forbes, “so it makes sense for the time being that the CDC is… broadening mask recommendations, not to protect the wearer, but to protect the family members and others in the community.”

Importantly, the CDC is still discouraging citizens from wearing medical grade masks, as there is still a critical shortage, and remaining supplies are desperately needed by health care providers.

While these improvised masks may not provide a perfect viral barrier, universal adoption has proven an effective addition to other social distancing methods.
This page has been compiled for would-be mask-makers. The Charter will cover reasons, materials, patterns, and protocol for effective mask use.

DIY mask materials:

Photos: How People Tried to Protect Themselves From Flu Pandemics ...
English Citizens wear masks to prevent flu, circa 1932. Image courtesy History.com

During the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, much of the US (and much of the world) was required by law to wear masks in public. Unfortunately, the common material at the time for these masks was surgical gauze, a material designed to be highly porous. There is little conclusive evidence that these gauze masks were effective. Scientists now know that only tightly-woven fabrics are effective at blocking viruses and similar particles.  

Caption: Courtesy Smart Air Filters.

A 2013 study conducted by Cambridge University found that most fabric is more than fifty percent effective at blocking virus-sized particles, but only dish towels, t-shirts, and HEPA-rated vacuum cleaner bags approached surgical masks in effectiveness, with the vacuum bags proving 95 percent effective at catching viruses and particles of similar sizes. There’s a catch:

People won’t wear masks they can’t breathe through.

A pane of glass or a sheet of plastic wrap is a more effective viral barrier than even an N-95 mask. There’s just one problem: these materials are also a highly effective barrier to oxygen, so masks made of them will kill the wearer, or force them to take the mask off. A mask is no good to a corpse, or to someone who doesn’t wear it.

The Cambridge study also compared breathability of common DIY mask materials, and found that while vacuum bags are highly effective, they’re more than twice as hard to breath through.

T-Shirt and cotton sheet fabric, the materials that the CDC has recommended for DIY masks, are a compromise between usability and filtration. Masks made from these materials are considered somewhat effective at reducing infection rates when used correctly, and effective at preventing the wearer from spreading the virus.

Davies Et. Al. “Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness.

Making a mask:

Once armed with the CDC-recommended tightly-woven materials, DIY mask-makers have a glut of mask designs to choose from (Google returns 501 million results as of April 6th). 

The Washington Post says that: “Good coverage is important. The mask should reach above the bridge of the nose and below the chin. Fit is important. A mask should be snug.” 

As long as a mask meets these criteria, experts can’t really recommend one design over another, as there isn’t much data to suggest one design is more effective than the rest.

Whether one chooses one of the hundreds of the sewable models, no-sew versions, or bandanna arrangements, the key to masks is how they’re used.

Using the mask:

Part of the reason the CDC waited to recommend general mask use is auto-contamination.

Auto-contamination: people accidentally infecting themselves by messing up.

“Folks who don’t know how to wear them properly tend to touch their faces a lot and actually can increase the spread of coronavirus,” said US Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams.

Masks act as a filter that traps the contaminants on the outside surface. The problem is that the virus doesn’t disappear, it sticks to the mask. This turns the outside of the mask into a biohazard which is just as infectious as high-touch surfaces. 

With practice, safe handling of a mask makes the infectious outer surface a non-issue. However, seemingly harmless behaviors render the mask worse than useless. Common errors include adjusting the mask, touching the eyes, wearing the mask around the neck, pocketing it for later, or failing to ensure a tight fit.

The key to effective mask use is mindfulness, says the CDC: “Individuals should be careful not to touch their eyes, nose, and mouth when removing their face covering and wash hands immediately after removing.”

Once the mask is removed, most authorities recommend disposing of it or throwing it in the washing machine immediately. “If you have to wear the covering again before washing it, wash your hands immediately after putting it back on and avoid touching your face,” says Andrea Castillo, correspondent for the LA Times, “and throw out any masks that no longer cover your nose and mouth, have stretched out or damaged straps, can’t stay on your face, or have holes or tears in the fabric.”

Masks In A Nutshell
The CDC, along with most public health agencies, is recommending that everyone:

Make a cloth mask. They don’t really care how it’s made, as long as it fits well, is made of finely-woven fabric, and allows the wearer to breathe without difficulty.

Wear the mask while:
– In stores
– On the street
– Whenever near others.

And whatever happens, DON’T:
– Re-use the mask without washing it.
– Touch the mask without washing hands before and after.
– Leave the mask lying around


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Castillo, Andrea. “How to keep your coronavirus face mask clean.” LA Times. 4 Apr. 2020. https://www.latimes.com/science/story/2020-04-04/how-to-keep-your-coronavirus-face-mask-clean. Accessed 7 Apr. 2020.

Edwards, Ericka. “Making your own face mask? Some fabrics work better than others, study finds.” NBC. 3 Apr. 2020. https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/making-your-own-face-mask-some-fabrics-work-better-others-n1175966. Accessed 3 Apr. 2020.

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Tara, John. “Iceland lab’s testing suggests 50% of coronavirus cases have no symptoms.” CNN. 3 Apr. 2020.  https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/01/europe/iceland-testing-coronavirus-intl/index.html. Accessed 5 Apr. 2020.

The Washington Post Staff. “How to sew your own fabric mask.” The Washington Post. 5 Apr. 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2020/04/05/how-sew-your-own-fabric-mask/?arc404=true. Accessed 7 Apr. 2020.

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“Use of Cloth Face Coverings to Help Slow the Spread of COVID-19.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 4 Apr. 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/diy-cloth-face-coverings.html. Accessed 5 Apr. 2020.

Wamsley, Laurel; Aubrey, Allison. “Coronavirus FAQs: Is A Homemade Mask Effective? And What’s The Best Way To Wear One?.” NPR Goats and Soda. 3 Apr. 2020. https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2020/04/03/826996154/coronavirus-faqs-is-a-homemade-mask-effective-and-whats-the-best-way-to-wear-one?live=1&utm_source=npr_newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_content=20200405&utm_term=4502964&utm_campaign=health&utm_id=10718126&orgid=135. Accessed 6 Apr. 2020.

Wu, Nicholas. “Surgeon General says CDC was asked to review guidance on wearing masks.” USA TODAY. 1 Apr. 2020. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2020/04/01/coronavirus-surgeon-general-says-cdc-asked-review-mask-guidance/5101884002/. Accessed 4 Apr. 2020.