Materials to make a mask at home include a sewing machine, fabric scissors, thread, elastic and pipe cleaners. Credit: Sophia Palumbo | Lantern Reporter

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s April 3 recommendation to wear nonsurgical face coverings in public has led many to try their hand at making masks at home, but not all masks are created equal.

Homemade masks are less effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19 than hospital-grade N95 masks, which are tested for fit and permeability, but effectiveness can be improved by using multiple layers of thick fabric and making sure the mask fits properly, Joann Dible, a critical care nurse at the Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State, said.

“You would want to use a material that’s tightly knit, something you can’t easily see through, something that has a high thread count so that the holes or spaces between the threads are really minimal,” Dible said. “And then you’d want to layer it, so double layer with a cotton batting or something in the middle.”

Dible said a mask’s effectiveness can also be improved by sewing a pipe cleaner into the fabric so it conforms to the bridge of the nose and by making sure it fits snugly underneath the chin. 

Karen Belisle, a dental hygienist and Ohio State alumna, said she began making masks for herself with materials she had at home and giving them out to about 30 others over Facebook.

“I wear a mask for work so I’m used to them, and I had a couple at home,” she said. “I based my pattern on a mask that I would normally wear at work.”

Belisle makes her masks from two layers of 100 percent cotton fabric with a polyester interfacing in between. She then makes horizontal folded pleats down the middle of the mask and sews the layers together with a zig-zag stitching pattern, into which she sews loops of elastic to fit around the ears. At the top of the mask, she sews in a wire pipe cleaner to improve the fit over the bridge of the nose.

Belisle said she uses a sewing machine, fabric scissors, thread, elastic and pipe cleaners to make her masks, and that the polyester interfacing is optional if it can’t be found in a store. Although Belisle had the necessary supplies at home, she said she realizes that many sewing stores may have low stock since the CDC advisory.

However, there are no-sew options available and many compromises that can be made for missing materials, Belisle said. For example, the mask’s straps can be made from pieces of string that tie behind the ears instead of elastic, she said.

“It will make them more difficult to make because you have to make the tie, but it might be a little more adjustable for people,” Belisle said. “It might be more comfortable for some people that wear them for longer periods of time, so they don’t bother the backs of your ears.”

Along with being worn properly, a mask should also be taken care of and not worn more than once between washes, Belisle said. She includes a list of instructions with every mask she gives away.

“You take it off, put it directly into the washing machines and wash your hands afterward,” Belisle said.

Along with wearing masks in public, people should also maintain social distancing to stay safe from harmful droplets that come from an infected person, Dible said. 

“People just need to understand to stay farther back and to wash their hands frequently and cover their mouth,” she said.

Dible said if people started wearing masks sooner in the outbreak, the infection rate might have slowed, especially in big cities where people are in close proximity to others. At this point, the best thing a person can do to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is stay home as much as possible, she said.

Directions for making, wearing and taking care of homemade masks can be found on the CDC website.The website also includes tutorials for making no-sew masks using alternative materials such as bandanas and T-shirts.