What Materials Make the Best Face Masks?

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  • 1-20 hours
  • Intermediate
  • 0-1,000
What You'll Need
Two 10”x6” rectangles of cotton fabric
Vacuum bags or furnace filter (one option)
Two 6” pieces of elastic (or rubber bands, string, cloth strips, or hair ties)
Needle and thread (or bobby pin)
Scissors
Sewing machine
3-D printer (one option)

During a global pandemic we tend to acquire new skills. Perhaps you’ve dabbled in canning foods or baking breads, but one thing you’ve likely considered is how to make face masks that offer protection when you need it. Whether you’re facing the current COVID-19 crisis of 2020 or simply looking to make your own face mask for home projects, it’s important to note that different materials offer varying amounts of protection against airborne materials.

The United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends wearing face masks in public during this pandemic. In addition to selecting the right materials to construct your mask with, CDC guidelines also recommend masks fit snugly but comfortably against the side of the face, be secured with ties or ear loops, include multiple layers of fabric, allow for breathing without restriction, and be able to be laundered and machine dried without damage or change to shape.

Many people who are contagious may have no idea they are because they have no symptoms, so even a light fabric mask is worth wearing. While these thinner coverings may not offer much protection to the wearer from viral particles, they can help reduce the chances of that person spreading the coronavirus if they have it.

Here are some standard materials you likely have around the house, and some tips regarding the level of protection they can offer as a mask.

Cotton

While you may not have bolts of cotton laying around the house, you likely have cotton clothing that will do the job. Look at the content of your t-shirts and flannel pajamas. You could also use bandanas or layers of 600-count cotton pillowcases.

There are a variety of ways to put these masks together, but the important thing to remember is to use at least two layers of material while ensuring the mask still offers adequate breathability and a good fit.

In at least one study, the most effective cotton masks were found to be constructed from two layers of high-quality, heavyweight “quilter’s cotton.” Equally effective options are two-layer masks made with thick batik fabric or a double-layer mask with an inner layer of flannel and outer layer of cotton.

vacuum cleaner filter

Hepa Filter Vacuum Bags or Furnace Filters

It’s likely you hadn’t considered HEPA filters for your face masks, but it seems like an obvious choice once the idea is out there. Researchers have verified the filters are one of the most effective options available. Yang Wang, an assistant professor of environmental engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology conducted several studies in a controlled environment and found that allergy-reduction HVAC filters worked the best, capturing 89 percent of particles with one layer and 94 percent with two layers.

A similar furnace filter captured 75 percent of particles with two layers, but required six layers to achieve 95 percent. The downside of the filters is a lack of breathability when used as the only material, alongside the risk of breathing in small particulates from the filter. To solve this problem, Wang suggests sandwiching the filter in between two pieces of high-quality cotton.

3-D Printed

If you have a 3-D printer, one option might be to print a mask. At least one company is providing the printing file for free here. You can line the printed mask with a coffee filter, HEPA vacuum bag, or cotton fabric for an extra layer of security.

Light Test

If you aren’t sure of the quality of your materials, try the light test. Shine a light directly through the material. The less light that filters through the better because it means the material is dense enough to hold back viruses and other particulates. Again, just be sure that breathing isn’t restricted by the density of the fabric.

coffee filters close up

Coffee Filters

In tests, coffee filters offered some protection, but even with several layers, didn’t offer a reliable level of safety. Plus, they are not washable. However, they are readily available and better than nothing so making a mask out of several layers is an option in the absence of preferred materials.

Other Pointers

Making your own mask is fairly quick and easy, especially if you are proficient with a sewing machine. Do follow CDC guidelines to ensure a good fit, but remember that masks do more to protect others if you are carrying a virus than they do to protect you from contracting something. With this in mind, it’s still best to stay at home or practice physical distancing if you must go into public.

Also, be sure to put your mask through the laundry after each outing, placing it directly into the washing machine when you arrive home. Once the pandemic hits the rear view mirror, your supply of masks will work when staining wood, sanding planks, or even cutting onions in the kitchen.