Are DIY face masks actually effective?

Because COVID-19 is a new illness that hasn’t been seen before, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO) need to make policy changes over how we can protect ourselves against the illness. Along with social distancing and hand washing, the government now recommends that people use cloth masks in public (via NBC).

But the change doesn’t mean you should rush out and buy surgical masks and N95 masks, which are in scarce supply and need to be reserved for health care professionals who are on the front lines of the pandemic. Thanks to the internet, we’ve been able to get creative about DIY masks, which can offer some form of protection against COVID-19, depending on the materials you use.

“We can certainly see circumstances on which the use of masks, both homemade and cloth masks, at the community level may help with an overall comprehensive response to this disease,” the WHO’s executive director of its health emergencies program, Dr. Michael Ryan said (via South China Morning Post).

Masks are not a substitute for social distancing

Even before the CDC announced its change of heart, individuals and companies had already been testing different materials that might be used to replace surgical masks. Infectious disease doctor Christian Schrock told MarketWatch, “All masks are not created equally. There are hundreds of DIY designs out there that do help somewhat to reduce the spread of the virus from the person who is not ill but still highly contagious.” 

Both NBC and MarketWatch report that masks which offer the best protection are made from a double layer of 180 thread-count cotton, with a thick and tight weave; NBC further warns that cotton T-shirts may not be as useful. Business Insider reports that masks made with ToolBox’s shop towels and ZEP’s industrial blue towels work, too.

Remember, a DIY mask is not a replacement for an N95 mask, though it does “offer some protection from respiratory droplets that spread the virus,” according to MarketWatch.

The White House’s Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Deborah Birx says under no condition should the masks be a substitute for social distancing. She explained that people can feel “an artificial sense of protection because they are behind a mask, [but] don’t get a false sense of security.”

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