It shouldn’t have come to this, but here we are. The world is running out of face masks for health care workers, which is one reason that US officials, including the surgeon general, have warned members of the public against buying their own masks for protection against the coronavirus.
But that doesn’t mean face masks for the public are a bad idea, if we had enough masks. Contrary to what US officials told us, many studies show that widespread mask-wearing might be a very effective complement to hand-washing, social-distancing and other measures to mitigate the pandemic.
There are caveats: People should make sure their DIY masks are clean (a dirty mask might be worse than no mask), and they shouldn’t use the masks as an excuse to violate social-distancing orders
Health officials in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan suggest that people wear masks in certain situations — if they’re symptomatic, for instance, or if they’re in crowded, not-very-well-ventilated places, like aeroplanes.
Studies have also shown that mask-wearing (in conjunction with hand-washing) reduces the spread of infection within households or other shared living spaces, like residence halls.
But how to get your hands on a mask, when there are no masks? The internet has a plan: Make your own.
Sewers and preppers have lately been flooding social media with designs for DIY masks made out of household materials — some T-shirt fabric, elastic ribbon and a little bit of stitching.
Who knew the future would look so apocalyptically homespun — so “Mad Max” meets “Little House on the Prairie”? Yet this is no useless online fad; homemade masks for all could make a huge difference.
At least two peer-reviewed studies show that while DIY masks are not nearly as effective as commercial masks made for health care workers, they are far better than nothing. Homemade masks both limit the spread of infectious droplets in the air and discourage people from touching their faces.
“It’s not as good as a surgical mask, but in a pinch, you could use it,” said Anna Davies, a research facilitator at the University of Cambridge who co-wrote one of the studies on homemade masks.
What sort of pinch? As the numbers grow, just about everything in daily life. Say you need to run to the supermarket in an area where there are lots of infections, or you share an apartment with some yahoos who just came back from spring break.
“If I were in an area with very high density, like New York, I can see the benefit,” Davies said.
The internet abounds with mask designs, but the research suggests that as long as the mask covers your nose and mouth and is comfortable to wear, the specific pattern you choose may not matter very much.
Various household materials differ in their effectiveness — in Davies’ study, vacuum-cleaner bags offered better filtration than fabrics made of cotton blends, but plain cotton T-shirt fabric still provided a useful barrier. One template comes from the community-supported, open-source sewing site freesewing.org, meaning, of course, that it requires that you know how to sew.
But there are ways to make a mask without sewing — just cut up a clean T-shirt and tie it around your head.
There are caveats: People should make sure their DIY masks are clean (a dirty mask might be worse than no mask), and they shouldn’t use the masks as an excuse to violate social-distancing orders.
But, keeping those limitations in mind, making a mask for yourself and those you love may be a perfect way to spend an afternoon in lockdown.
— Farhad Manjoo is a noted American columnist and author