The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends that people wear cloth face masks when you do need to go outside, to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. Cloth face masks should be used in public spaces where it’s hard to keep up social distancing, like the grocery store, pharmacy and on public transit, and especially in areas where there’s significant coronavirus spread.
According to the CDC, simple cloth face coverings can help keep people who may have the virus and don’t know it from spreading it to others. And there are likely a lot of people who fit into this category. It’s thought that about 25 percent of people infected with COVID-19 may not show any symptoms of the illness, Robert Redfield, M.D., director of the CDC, recently told NPR.
“The main goal is to protect other people out in public,” Jill Weatherhead, M.D., an assistant professor of tropical medicine and infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. For the record, there’s “not really any data at this point to show that homemade masks prevent people from spreading the virus,” according to infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. However, it’s thought to help on some level.
Also, it’s unclear at this point how much a cloth face mask will protect the person wearing it, but it will likely give at least some level of protection, says Weatherhead.
So, what should a cloth face mask be made of? And what’s the safest way to wear one? Here’s what you need to know.
What is the best fabric for a face mask?
There hasn’t been a lot of extensive research into which type of fabric is best, but a team at Wake Forest Baptist Health recently found that some fabrics perform better than others. For the study, researchers evaluated 13 different face mask designs from 400 masks made by community volunteers. The goal was to see which type of mask best removed particles 0.3 – 1.0 microns in diameter (the size of many viruses and bacteria) compared to standard surgical masks and N95 respirators.
The researchers found that the best homemade masks had 79 percent filtration, compared to surgical masks (62 percent to 65 percent) and N95 masks (97 percent). But some masks only had 1 percent filtration. The best design was made of two layers of high-quality, heavyweight quilter’s cotton, with a thread count of 180 or more. Fabrics with an especially tight weave and thicker thread such as batiks also did well. A double-layer mask with a simple cotton outer layer and an inner layer of flannel got good marks as well. Single-layer masks or double-layer masks that were made with lightweight cotton performed the worst.
The CDC mentions cotton in several of their instructions on how to make a mask. “Cotton allows for a balance of filtration with breathability,” explains Weatherhead. “You don’t want something so tightly woven that you can’t breathe in and out of it.”
If you don’t have quilting fabric at home, that’s OK. You just want something with a tight enough weave to keep out SARS-CoV-2, the pathogen that causes COVID-19, Suzanne Willard, Ph.D., clinical professor and associate dean for global health at Rutgers School of Nursing, tells Yahoo Life. “You don’t want anything where you can see through the fabric,” she says. So, it’s best to take a pass on turning that old threadbare T-shirt into a mask. And old flannel shirt, though, might offer some decent protection.
“You also don’t want anything that will make you sweat,” says Willard. Sweating can wet or dampen the fabric of your mask, making it easier for SARS-CoV-2 to penetrate your mask, she explains. Overall, Willard recommends focusing more on cotton with a tight weave for your face mask (and doubling it up) and avoiding more impenetrable fabrics like polyester, rayon, and coated fabrics. Cotton is also easy to wash—a definite perk, according to Willard.
What’s the safest way to wear your mask?
The way you wear your mask is just as important as what it’s made of, says Weatherhead. Experts recommend following these steps to wear your mask in the safest way possible:
Wash your hands before you touch your mask. “Your hands could have germs on them,” Willard says. “It’s good to start with a clean slate, and then move on from there.”
Don’t touch the mask or remove it when you’re in public. “It just opens yourself up for infection,” says Willard. “If you’re not going to wear the mask properly, don’t wear it.” Taking your mask on and off in public just makes you touch your face more often, and that can increase your risk of getting infected.
Make sure your mask has a snug fit. “You want to make sure it fits over your mouth and nose, and goes up under your chin,” Weatherhead says. “If it’s not fitting snug against your face, it’s not doing its job.” Some people are now tying a bandana around their face and leaving the bottom open — this is also sub-optimal because respiratory droplets can get in and out through the opening, Weatherhead notes.
Wash your hands before you remove the mask. “Hand hygiene is still crucial,” explains Adalja. “If your hands aren’t clean, you could technically contaminate your mask and face with your own hands.”
Put your mask directly in the washing machine. Take your mask straight to the washing machine (doing your best to avoid touching as little as possible along the way), Willard says. Then, wash your hands again.
Experts stress that you still want to follow other methods of preventing the spread of COVID-19 when you wear a mask, like social distancing and good hand hygiene. “Just because you’re wearing a mask doesn’t mean those other steps are no longer important,” says Adalja.
For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC and WHO’s resource guides.