If you’re going to go through the process of buying, making, or wearing face masks, you want to make sure what you’ve got in your hands is going to do the job of protecting yourself and others from infection. After investing all those materials, time, and love, face mask quality is the ultimate goal. Sure, you can rig something quickly, but if it isn’t a high-quality mask, why bother?
Volunteers are pumping out masks by the thousands and some retailers have started offering them as a bonus gift with purchase. With so many options out there, how do you know who offers the right combination of safe materials, sturdy design, and comfort to ensure that your mask stays in place and blocks the transmission of germ microbes?
What to look out for
We are all learning as we go. What is clear so far is that there are some obvious red flags when you search for face masks to buy online; single layers of material, loosely woven fabrics, and cut-up socks don’t fit the bill for long-term, repeated virus protection.
The staff at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Centre recently had 400 volunteer-made masks tested to see how effectively they filter out small contagions that spread viruses. “We saw the possibility that we could face a shortage of surgical masks in the hospital and wanted to investigate the possibility of using cloth masks as an alternative as long as they worked and provided good protection for our doctors, nurses, and patients,” said Dr. Scott Segal, chair of anesthesiology at Wake Forest Baptist, who came up with the idea.
The testing was done by the Manufacturing Development Center at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
“As important as this information is for hospitals, it is also important for people who want to make masks for their own use,” Dr. Segal added. “We don’t want people to think that just any piece of cloth is good enough and have a false sense of security.”
They found the best models screened out 79% of particulates, compared to the rate of 62% to 65% offered by some surgical masks. On the flip side, some homemade masks only held back 1% of virus-carrying germs. Yikes!
Based on these discoveries, it’s clear there are a few factors to consider, regardless of whether you are making your high-quality mask or someone else is doing it for you.
What materials to use for face mask quality
Given the limited access to retail stores when mask-making began, face mask quality was initially dictated by what we had in our homes that we could fashion into face protection. However, with more stores re-opening – or offering curbside pickups – we can now find supplies more easily or replenish what we have used over the past few months.
As Dr. Segal discovered, the best-performing designs are made from two layers of high-quality, heavyweight quilter’s cotton – including colorful batiks – with a thread count of 180 or more. The fabric’s tight weave and thicker thread added an extra element of defense. A double-layer mask with a cotton outer layer and an inner layer of flannel also performed well, Dr. Segal said.
The inferior performers consisted of single-layer masks or double-layer designs of lower-quality, lightweight cotton. In other words, you can cut a sock and wear it over your face, but it really doesn’t offer significant protection, especially in comparison to other, easily made alternatives.
Professional masks are assessed on bacteria filtration, breathability, water resistance, and absorbency. The best masks offered one layer of non-woven material to block out smaller microbes. If you want to add an extra layer of protection, opt for a mask with a filter pocket where you can add a paper towel, a dry baby wipe, or a coffee filter. It may make it more challenging to breathe through, but it can add another line of defense. You should always be able to breathe through your mask without straining, so you may wish to test different layers of filtration to determine what works best for you before making extra masks or wearing them in public.
The most stringent testing so far has been done by a team of air-quality experts at Smart Air. They examined 40 different materials to see which produced the best results. Ultimately, their top five list had bed sheets (there’s that cotton again), denim, paper towels, and canvas. A bra cup was also on the shortlist, but didn’t make the final cut since they doubted people would wear one in public. The joke’s on them; a few women actually gave it a try only to find that some bra cups cover their owners’ faces all too well.
Smart Air also recommends doubling up layers of a cotton t-shirt, which is softer and more comfortable for longer wear. Conversely, they warn against using heavy coffee filters or vacuum cleaner bags for in-mask filters since they simply could not breathe through them.
So, double up on tightly woven fabrics, with the option to add a third layer.
Sewing expertise for high-quality masks
Many novice stitchers are embracing the chance to get more accustomed to sewing with mask-making but may be making rookie mistakes in the process. With just a few adjustments, you can make your masks even more durable and effective against COVID-19 and other viruses.
If you are new to sewing or don’t have many supplies, you may be inadvertently using cheap cotton that doesn’t offer the density needed to screen out germs as effectively. Test your materials by holding it up to the light; if it’s easy to see the shape of a window or your hand, you should try something thicker. You can also try to spray water through it to see how well it would stand up against a sneeze or a cough.
Next up, you want to make sure your masks stay together once they are in use. The beauty of cotton masks – on top of the vibrant color choices – is the ability to wash and reuse them, which produces less waste and allows disposable, heavy-duty masks to be reserved for medical workers. However, washing and wearing take its toll so you must make high-quality masks that are durable.
When you are sewing over multiple layers, your machine may skip or lengthen stitches to get over that hump. Watch for gaps in stitching. You want eight to 10 stitches per inch for this type of project.
When you add straps, you want to make sure you sew back and forth over that seam to hold them securely in place. After all, that part of the mask will feel the most tension, so you don’t want it to let go mid-wear.
Don’t overdo it, however. Some new sewists stitch through material so much that it actually weakens the elastic. Two or three lines of regular stitching will do the trick.
Good fit and seal as signs of a high-quality mask
Even with the best materials and stitching, if the mask does not sit right on your face or has gaps at key points, it is not doing its job.
Healthcare officials initially warned against using face masks, since ill-fitting ones lead to you touching your face more often, which spreads germs from your hands. Taking the right steps in the creation or buying process can avoid that pitfall.
Look for a design that can be altered to accommodate a larger jaw, a longer face, or even a beard. Making a test mask, then altering the pattern gives you a chance to test-drive your model so you’re not fidgeting with it later.
This pattern by Craft Passion has a curve that brings the mask higher up over your nose and makes it easier to fit around the contours of your face. This makes it snug around the nose and under the chin so you are less likely to breathe in droplets that contain the virus. You can adapt the slope of the curves and ultimately tailor your own template for a complete mask collection.
The common three-pleated mask is a good, universal pattern since its folds open enough for nearly any sized face.
Again, breathability is key since the urge to take off your mask to catch your breath will expose you to germs via the air and your hands. Make sure you test out your mask before you leave home, then put it on securely in the car or away from other members of the public.
If you find that elastic loops over your ears are not comfortable, opt for fabric ties or longer elastic loops that go over your head. Some nurses report that they prefer this option since the elastics stay in place better than fabric ties.
Buying high-quality masks online
If you want to stock up without sewing, there are many options on the market, but keep the lessons listed above in mind when you go surfing. Without the option to try on masks for fit or to see the quality firsthand, you want to find as much information as you can before you buy. The more information posted about the product, the better. Look for quality of materials, multiple layers, and filter pockets. Some websites list the full dimensions of a mask, so measure your face to see what would work for you.
Most mask-makers don’t offer returns, due to the risk of infection. Sure, you can wash the mask when you return it, but then it has more wear and tear. Would you buy a used mask at full price? Likely not, so do as much homework beforehand as you can. If it doesn’t fit, you may wish to wash it, donate it, and start again.
Seek out sites with high-resolution photos that show the mask from multiple angles, to see what you’re getting. Anyone offering advice on how to wear the mask, how they comply with CDC specifications, and how to clean them are also clearly invested in protecting you. Crafting site Etsy has several options available for you to peruse with prices from $16 to $37.
One of the best examples of product descriptions comes from Disney’s online store. It describes the material in every layer and sells sets of four masks for $19.99. This company, and several others, are donating masks with each purchase, which could be another incentive.
Best of luck as you do your best to get through this pandemic with your health intact. A high-quality mask is just one tool in your arsenal. Make sure you get the right one for you and to pair it with social distancing and responsible hand washing whenever possible.