Cautions About Using Homemade Masks

As a nurse,

I have three concerns about the general public making and using their own masks to protect themselves from COVID-19 infection.

The first is related to the choice material you use and whether or not you choose to add a filtering layer. Many social media posts and even mainstream publications are promoting using 100% cotton. This is not a very effective barrier to bacteria and viruses at all. Using a cotton blend fabric will increase the effectiveness of the mask by approximately 10-20% (depending on study cited, with differences in methodology); also, choosing a “stretchy,” flexible fabric with a blend of fibers will allow you to make your mask smaller and to get a near custom fit on your face, while remaining comfortable. The better fit (or seal) you can obtain, the more viral particles you will block.

You can further increase the power of your homemade mask by adding a filter inside. There is a debate about the use of commercially available HEPA filters, such as from vacuum cleaner bags and air-filtration systems. This is because most brands are made of glass micro-particles (like fiberglass) that can harm lung tissue, so I am recommending using either one or two layers of dish towels (tea towels) or two sheets of the blue “shop towels” and placing them inside your mask. Do not use coffee filters. They are very permeable and should be considered as a last resort method only.

Here is an effective mask made from 2 layers of Scott’s Shop Towels.

The next concern I have is that there is a strong possibility of contaminating yourself if wearing and disposing of gloves and masks improperly. You must always assume that your gloves and the outside of your mask are contaminated with potentially infectious material, and take care to not touch those areas when removing. (And, please, dispose of them properly. Do not leave in parking lots for others to risk infection.) Also, take care not to touch any of your personal items (such as keys, phone, car handles, etc.) or your face, clothes, etc. with the contaminated gloves. You’ll only contaminate yourself and potentially others. Lastly, even after removing gloves, always wash your hands, or sanitize if soap and water are not available. Below are two quick, visual guides used by healthcare professionals to demonstrate proper removal of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment).

Safely removing potentially contaminated gloves, courtesy of Globus Group.
How to properly remove masks.

My last concern is that some people may inappropriately believe that by wearing PPE they do not need to shelter or quarantine themselves. The use of PPE is to both protect yourselves and others; however it is not a permission slip to take unwarranted trips outside of your home during a pandemic. The singles best way we can save lives is to heed the advice (and pleas) of the scientists and medical professionals who are urging us all to stay home. This will prevent spread, help flatten the curve and save lives.

We know sheltering is inconvenient, frustrating and challenging for everyone. For ideas on coping, distraction/diversion and more, see the Resource directory here.

For easy step-by-step instructions on how to make your own mask, including more safe fabric recommendations, see the earlier blog post on This American Quarantine.

~ by, R. Langdon Bosarge, RN, BSN

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