Mask On, Mask Off

Move over, fanny packs—face masks are the must-have new accessory for 2020.

Emphasis on the “must-have” part. With COVID-19 continuing to spread, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently enacted guidance for Americans to wear cloth masks when in public places like grocery stores.

“COVID-19 infections don’t necessarily all show symptoms, which means people can be infected and at risk of spreading infection if they feel fine or if they have a minor sniffle,” said Dr. Mike Bell, deputy director of the Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion for CDC.

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is spread through respiratory droplets. Bell said speaking is enough to spray respiratory material in a general area, and because of that, the CDC now encourages source control.

“Source control implies that you’re stopping respiratory secretions where they start. By wearing a cloth mask in public, we’re able to keep people from spreading secretions even if they’re not ill,” he said.

Makers came out in force, producing cloth masks of varying layers, fabric types and sizes with their home sewing machines. The CDC has instructions on its website for sewn and no-sew versions. Bell said there are a few guidelines people should consider when designing or picking out their face mask.

He suggested choosing a mask that had several layers of thinner fabric versus one with a layer of dense fleece or felt, and finding one that fit without too much gaping on the sides of the face. Cloth masks should be washed and dried on the hot dryer cycle.

Some sewing patterns suggest adding a coffee or air filter layer in between the cloth layers.

“The reality is, I think that adding coffee filters or other filter material is more of a comforting concept than an effective addition,” Bell said. “If you get filter material in there, for it to do anything, you have to breathe through it. And by and large, you’ll be breathing around it.”


Who’s wearing what?

Bell said there’s an important distinction to be made between the virus getting in and getting out of a person’s airways. Breathing, coughing, sneezing and speaking result in respiratory droplets of various sizes. The further these droplets travel from the nose or mouth, the smaller and more spread out they get. But at the source, they tend to be bigger and clumpier, and thus easier to contain.

“Cloth coverings of many different descriptions do a perfectly good job of doing that,” Bell said.

He referenced a recent advertisement out of the Czech Republic, which shows two individuals wearing masks and the slogan, “My mask protects you, and your mask protects me.”

For those working at close range with COVID-19 patients, it’s important they have added protection.

“That’s where the professional masks like N95 come in,” Bell said. “It forces you to breathe the air through the filter. Respirators are filters that are sealed tightly around your face, by elastic or a rubber holder like scuba gear.”

The “95” in N95 means the mask filters 95 percent of particles that are 0.3 microns or less in size, said Gajanan Bhat, textile engineer and head of the Department of Textiles, Merchandising and Interiors at the University of Georgia.

“You don’t need 95 percent or higher protection if you are not close to or working with those people, or not in a contaminated area,” Bhat said. “If somebody is working in a contaminated environment, and you are working in an area with COVID-19 … the unique structure [of N95] offers that level of protection, but also the breathability. Once you are wearing it, you should be able to breathe easily six to eight, eight to 10 hours without fatigue.”

N95 masks are made from polypropylene fibers.

“From that plastic, you make really fine fibers and it is like multiple layers of spiderweb. When you have multiple layers of spiderweb, which is also electrically charged, it is porous enough to breathe so the air and the humidity goes through, but it will capture tiny bacteria and in some cases even a virus so it does not allow them to go through,” Bhat said. “That’s why people are scrambling, because there are not many who can make that kind of specialty fabrics.”

Even surgical masks, though a step up from cloth masks, aren’t ideal for those working directly with COVID-19 patients. Their primary role is as a liquid barrier between a surgeon and an open wound. Plus, like cloth masks, surgical masks don’t fit to the face the way N95s do, Bell said.

But no matter what type of mask a person is most suited for, the CDC still wants folks to wash their hands.

“The hand hygiene is something that needs to be underscored just as much as the concept of covering your nose and mouth. If you’re wearing a mask and having to touch it and adjust it, you want to touch and adjust it with clean hands. If you take your mask off, you want to wash your hands after,” Bell said.

For tutorials on how to make your masks, visit: