Face masks may help slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. A person can make cloth face coverings from household items. For some types of homemade face coverings, it is not necessary to have any sewing skills.

Some authorities prefer the term ‘cloth face coverings’ to differentiate between homemade cloth face masks and the medical-grade masks that healthcare professionals use.

The World Health Organization (WHO) currently recommend that the general public wear nonmedical masks when physical distancing is not possible. This includes on public transport, in shops, and in some working conditions, such as those of social workers and cashiers.

They also recommend that people aged 60 and over and people with existing medical conditions wear medical masks when physical distancing is not possible.

Medical masks are a critical source for healthcare workers and others who need them the most. When medical masks are in short supply, the WHO say that they should be reserved for healthcare workers and at-risk individuals.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that cloth face coverings are not a substitute for physical distancing. It is important that people continue to follow distancing and hygiene guidelines.

In this article, we discuss how a person can make a cloth face covering and how to wear one correctly.

a woman holding a homemade face mask in her handsShare on Pinterest
A person can try wearing a cloth face covering if they are taking care of someone who may have COVID-19.

The CDC recommend that all people wear cloth face masks in public places where it is difficult to maintain a 6-foot (2-meter) distance from others. This will help slow the spread of the virus from asymptomatic people and people who do not know that they have contracted it. People should wear cloth face masks while continuing to practice physical distancing. Instructions for making masks at home are available here. Note: It is critical that surgical masks and N95 respirators are reserved for healthcare workers.

At present, there is not much research regarding the efficacy of homemade cloth face coverings.

In 2020, researchers compared the effectiveness of medical masks, N95 masks, and homemade cloth and paper masks, against the avian influenza virus (AIV), which they used instead of the new coronavirus.

They found that masks may help prevent the spread of viruses:

Mask typePercentage (%) of AIV blocked
N95 mask99.98
Medical mask97.14
Homemade mask95.15

However, according to 2015 research, cotton or cloth masks allowed about 97% of virus particles to penetrate the mask, whereas 44% of particles penetrated the medical masks.

The researchers concluded that cloth masks resulted in infection rates that were much higher than medical masks. This may be due to poor filtration, moisture retention, and the reuse of the masks.

The CDC recommend using cloth face coverings as “an additional, voluntary public health measure” in certain circumstances, including the following:

  • in public settings, such as supermarkets and pharmacies, where it is difficult to maintain other social distancing measures
  • in communities where there is a significant transmission of the virus
  • by people who may have the virus to avoid transmitting it to others

The CDC say that individuals should also wear cloth face coverings if they:

  • are taking care of someone with a suspected infection
  • are sneezing or coughing

They also state that cloth face coverings only work when people use them in conjunction with proper hand hygiene.

Medical masks are a critical source for healthcare workers and others who need them the most. When medical masks are in short supply, the WHO say that they should be reserved for healthcare workers and at-risk individuals.

For this reason, other people who want to wear a mask should use another type of cloth face covering or homemade mask.

The WHO recommend the general use of nonmedical masks and suggest individuals and manufacturers consider the following factors:

  • the number of layers of fabric and tissue
  • the breathability of material used
  • water-repellant qualities of the fabric
  • the shape and fit of the mask

It is important to note, however, that the situation changes every day, and public health authorities and other organizations frequently adapt their recommendations frequently.

Cloth face coverings need to fit correctly to be effective.

They should:

  • comprise of several layers of material
  • be secured with ties or ear loops
  • fit against the face without gaps
  • not hinder breathing
  • be easy to clean and dry without damage to the fabric

According to the CDC, cloth face coverings are not suitable for:

  • children under 2 years of age
  • individuals with breathing difficulties
  • people who are unconscious or incapacitated
  • those who are unable to remove the mask by themselves

Individuals should clean their hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water before putting on a cloth face covering. If soap and water are unavailable, they can use a hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol.

People should avoid touching the covering while wearing it. If a person touches the cloth face covering, they should wash their hands or use hand sanitizer.

Making a cloth face covering is relatively easy. Some methods involve sewing, while others do not.

No-sew methods

Here are two ways that do not require sewing:

Method one

A person will need:

  • a T-shirt
  • scissors
  • a ruler or measuring tape

Method two

A person will need:

  • square cotton cloth, approximately 20 inches (in) by 20 in
  • scissors
  • a ruler or measuring tape
  • rubber bands or hair ties

Sewn cloth face covering

A person will need:

  • tightly woven cotton fabric
  • lightweight fusible interfacing fabric
  • two pieces elastic, measuring 1/4-in wide by 7-in length
  • pencil
  • scissors
  • ruler
  • paper
  • sewing machine
  • sewing kit

Method

Individuals should regularly wash reusable face coverings.

Washing the cloth face mask in a washing machine should clean and sterilize it adequately.

Once a cloth face covering gets damp, a person should take it off and wash it in a washing machine.

Ensure the covering is thoroughly dry before using it again.

To safely remove a cloth face covering, a person should first clean their hands with soap and water or use hand sanitizer before touching it.

Do not touch the front of the cloth face covering.

If the face mask has ear loops, hold both the loops and gently lift it away from the face.

For a cloth face covering with ties, untie the bottom bow before untying the top one. Gently pull the covering away from the face.

Face coverings are just one way to reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2.

Other precautions a person should take include:

  • maintaining physical distance by keeping 6 feet (2 meters) away from others, especially those who are unwell
  • avoiding crowds where possible and reducing the time spent in public areas
  • cleaning and disinfecting “high-touch” objects in the home regularly, including door handles, keys, remote controls, and faucets
  • avoiding all forms of non-essential travel
  • avoiding the sharing of personal items, such as cutlery and towels
  • coughing or sneezing into a tissue and disposing of the tissue immediately
  • having sick members of the household isolate themselves as much as possible until symptoms resolve

While cloth face coverings can be helpful, they affect people differently.

For example, an article in the Singapore Medical Journal indicates that barriers to face mask use include a person’s perception of personal discomfort and a sense of embarrassment.

However, the study also reports that individuals are more likely to wear face masks when they believe that they are susceptible to a life-threatening illness.

The promotion of face masks by media and public health organizations encourages members of the public to use face coverings.

According to an article in the BMJ, experts have warned that recommending the everyday use of cloth face masks can contribute to shortages for frontline healthcare workers.

The article also notes that the CDC recommend using homemade face coverings, while the WHO and many other organizations do not.

The WHO state that the general use of face masks within the community can lead to a false sense of security, causing people to believe that the face covering will provide sufficient protection. People may then neglect other helpful measures, such as hand washing and physical distancing.

Individuals who have concerns about COVID-19 or who believe they may be showing symptoms should contact their doctor.

It is essential to call the doctor’s office before going there to avoid spreading the virus.

People who are experiencing stress and anxiety due to the coronavirus pandemic should talk to people they trust about their concerns and feelings.

Online therapy is available for those who wish to speak to a professional.

Individuals with preexisting mental health conditions should continue with their treatment and monitor their symptoms in case they get worse.

The WHO and the CDC have issued guidelines for the proper use of face masks as part of the effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

However, the effectiveness of cloth face coverings can vary significantly.

It is simple to make cloth face coverings at home using basic household items.

They need to fit correctly, and people need to know how to remove them safely. People who choose to wear a cloth face covering must continue to follow physical distancing and hand hygiene guidelines to help prevent the transmission of COVID-19.