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The most important thing to know about sewing your own face masks for COVID-19

Kells McPhillips

Kells McPhillipsMarch 25, 2020

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Photo: Getty Images/Cavan Images

Social distancing has handed many of us a quantity of free time that we’re still learning how to handle. We find ourselves ready to dive head first into long-delayed creative projects. And with the medical mask shortage becoming more critical by the day, an ever-growing online community of people is dedicating their newfound free time to sewing face masks to help fill the need of healthcare workers everywhere.

Using simple sewing machines and fabric, volunteers throughout the United States are helping to fill the nationwide need for masks created by the frenzy of citizens who over-purchased them at the height of COVID-19 panic shopping (…you know, like two weeks ago).

There’s no question about it: People using their own free moments to contribute to the public good is great, but it’s vital to remember that all medical masks aren’t created equal. In hospitals, two types of masks help medical professionals do their jobs (and neither can be easily made at home), says Shawn Nasseri, MD, an ENT trained by the Mayo Clinic.

“A surgical mask is usually a three-layer mask which has an occlusive fabric on the outside which forms a protective barrier for liquids. It is almost like a plastic or waxy coating that protect against getting splashed with blood during surgery, for example,” he says. The second layer decreases the amount of particles that can get through, while the innermost layer (typically made of cotton) provides yet another layer of filtration. “Surgical masks will stop things larger than 10 micrometers,” says Dr. Nasseri. (These are the masks you likely saw people wearing on the subway and other public spaces before social distancing went into full effect throughout the U.S.)

The second type, known as N95 masks or respiratory masks, function differently. “The whole idea is that they will stop things smaller than five micrometers, so they really filter out tiny particles,” says Dr. Nasseri. “N95 masks can filter out more than 95 percent of airborne particles. They are best for COVID-19 as they will block any airborne particles, specifically respiratory droplets from a sneeze or cough.”

“Honestly, we aren’t sure how helpful these homemade masks and makeshift masks with bandanas and scarves are, but it’s better than nothing.” —Sonia Vaidian, MD

Hospitals are now rationing both types of mask out of fear that they could run out entirely. And even as the demand for more masks grow by the day, medical professionals and government organizations simply haven’t reached a consensus on the efficacy of the DIY masks. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) doesn’t consider homemade masks to be personal protective equipment (PPE), but some medical professionals maintain that—when it comes to protection—a DIY mask is better than no mask at all. “Honestly, we aren’t sure how helpful these homemade masks and makeshift masks with bandanas and scarves are,” says Sonia Vaidian, MD, assistant medical director of EHE Health. “But it’s better than nothing, given that there are limited N95 respirators and surgical masks available.”

Masks made by volunteers won’t keep doctors from contracting COVID-19 if they come into contact with someone sick, but it could keep them from getting blood—or another fluid—on their face while they’re doing their jobs.

Still, if you’re looking for ways to actively help the world right now, you could do much, much worse than whipping out your dusty sewing machine and letting that thread fly! As for the fabric: “Masks with a silky outer layer, a middle layer of a thick woven material like nylon or cotton, and then comfortable cotton on the inside are ideal,” says Dr. Nasseri. “No wool or other fabrics that can cause allergies or irritation.” You can head here for the best pattern to follow to get you started or watch the video below. Happy sewing.

Other ways to fill your free time? Make this delicious pantry puttanesca and stay digitally connected with all your loved ones

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