Six expert tips to make your DIY face mask as effective as possible
While there have been some confusing and even contradictory messages from politicians and experts around the world about wearing face masks during the Covid-19 pandemic, health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize's stance on the matter is clear.
"Wearing masks is important," he said in a TimesLIVE article. "We want to recommend widespread use of masks. We are recommending that people can use cloth masks, just make sure there’s a three-layer kind of thing."
He asked people to reserve the specialised medical masks "for those who are dealing with intense infections in hospitals".
If you are planning to make your own DIY face mask, here are some expert pointers to help make it as effective as possible:
1. CHOOSE THE RIGHT FABRIC
Although people have been using whatever they have on hand to make masks, Dr Gregory Poland, a Covid-19 expert at the Mayo Clinic in the US, points out that there has been some research done on the effectiveness of different types of fabric.
"There are some materials that appear to be better than others in the few studies that have been done," he says. "High-quality, woven T-shirts tend to be better than scarves, for example. Cotton towels that are thicker with tight weaves tend to be better."
2. GET THE RIGHT FIT
No matter what material you've chosen for your mask, it must fit your face comfortably but snugly.
Research by Loretta Fernandez, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern University in the US, has shown that the most important factor determining whether a mask will protect you is not the material you use but how well it fits on your face.
3. INCLUDE MORE THAN ONE LAYER OF FABRIC
As Mkhize mentioned, it's important that homemade masks include at least three layers.
Fernandez has found that a layer of nylon pantyhose over masks can improve their effectiveness by as much as 50%
Fernandez concurs. She says extra layers of fabric, particularly nylon, can help prevent viral droplets getting through the mask - but you can also use whatever you have on hand.
"By including a filter layer — coffee filters, toilet paper, any sort of thing in there that is safe to breathe — you're just making the air have to follow a more circuitous route to get to your nose," she says.
Fernandez has found that a layer of nylon pantyhose over masks can improve their effectiveness by as much as 50%.
4. KEEP IT CLEAN
Whatever mask you've made, keeping it clean will also help make it far more effective.
"It's important to disinfect or clean masks regularly. Contaminated masks worn close to the face may actually increase one's chance of getting infected," says Sangwei Lu, an adjunct professor of infectious diseases and vaccinology in the school of public health at UC Berkeley in the US.
Poland adds: "Just washing with soap and water in your washing machine is quite satisfactory. You don't need to go to extreme lengths".
However, remember that you should be able to wash and dry your mask without it changing shape, as you want it to still fit your face.
5. MAKE MORE THAN ONE
"Cloth masks can be washed and dried, so it's a good idea to have two masks and wear them alternately," advises Lu.
Poland offers another reason why it's useful to have more than one mask on hand: "Once a mask gets wet, maybe from breathing, it loses its effectiveness in filtering respiratory particles, so it needs to be changed."
6. OTHER COVID-19 BEST PRACTICES STILL APPLY
Mkhize has said many times that frequent hand washing, coughing into one's elbow and other Covid-19 best practices go hand-in-hand with wearing a face mask.
"It’s not one versus the other - it’s everything together," he said.
• Additional reporting by staff reporter