Is Your Homemade Face Mask Effective?

Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images.
Last week, Canadian intimates line Knix launched a Go Fund Me campaign to purchase gowns, gloves, and perhaps most crucially, face masks, for frontline workers. They are one of many businesses both Canadian and international, who have stepped up in support of Coronavirus efforts — whether it’s raising money, donating materials and food, or even designing homemade face masks (like Christian Siriano, Alice + Olivia, Prada, and more).
But, according to Erica Patel, MD, an internal medicine resident at L.A. County Hospital, “There are strict requirements on what is considered medical-grade to protect healthcare workers. Sometimes homemade supplies don't always make the cut.” Because of these guidelines, many of the homemade masks that both designers and concerned citizens have donated to their local hospitals, in the U.S. at least, have been rejected.
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Doctors and nurses need a very specific type of face mask known as an N95 mask, a highly protective respirator mask that keeps those closest to the virus from being infected. Unfortunately, they’re in short supply. (While 11 million masks recently arrived in Canada, it’s not known if these are N95 masks or traditional surgical masks.)
The growing panic surrounding the spread of COVID-19 has led many people to begin purchasing N95 masks for personal use, something that both the Public Health Agency of Canada and many healthcare professionals have explicitly said is not necessary — although that opinion is evolving. Amazon has since stopped selling N95 respirators to the general public, along with paper surgical masks, face shields, gowns, gloves, and more, according to Recode. “I can definitely say that non-healthcare workers do NOT need surgical or N95 masks outside of the home unless they have respiratory symptoms themselves, they're living with someone with COVID and are caring for them, or they have a medical illness that puts them at high risk, like cancer on chemotherapy,” says Dr. Patel.
Upon learning this, many fashion brands switched their focus from sewing homemade masks to raising money and/or donating funds to purchase approved N95 masks from manufacturers. Fashion brands including Burberry, Uniqlo, Mango, and more have already pledged to donate millions of dollars worth of personal protective equipment to hospitals around the globe. Other PPEs like face shields, disposable gowns, goggles, scrub caps, booties to cover shoes, and full-body biohazard suits are also needed by hospital staff right now, says Dr. Patel. But they too need to be made using medical-grade materials. If you think that you or your business has the capacity to supply items of this nature, you can fill out a form on the Government of Canada website.
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As for homemade masks for non-healthcare workers? The PHAC clearly states that unless you’re caring for someone who is ill, you do not need to wear any type of face mask when outside. And, according to Dr. Patel, “Some studies show that it's more dangerous to wear homemade masks compared to hospital-grade masks because the sweat can trap more microbes and the material is too porous so it allows viruses to go through the mask.” She does say, though, that there isn’t currently enough research to say with 100% certainty whether or not wearing nothing at all is safer than wearing a homemade mask, or vice versa. 
PHAC Canada has also advised to use caution when making or using homemade masks, which are typically made out of cotton. These masks are not regulated and may not provide complete protection against virus-sized particles.
If you’re able to make yourself and your family masks at home, just make sure to use the right materials. “The thicker the fabric, the better: think heavy cotton T-shirt or a thick, felt-like fabric,” Linsey Marr, a Virginia Tech scientist told The New York Times. The Times also suggests using 100% cotton fabric. For the best results, only use brand-new materials, and wash them on the warmest possible setting prior to starting construction. If you only make one mask, simply hand wash it at night and ensure that it is fully dry before wearing it again. 
Wearing a face mask is just one measure you can take to stay healthy, but it’s not the only way to protect yourself and the people around you. Social distancing, staying inside as much as possible, and washing your hands often will also go a long way in reducing the spread of the virus.
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the Public Health Agency of Canada website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.

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