Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially began advising all Americans to wear face masks in public during the coronavirus pandemic to slow the spread.
The government’s reasoning: Studies have found that infected people can spread the virus to others before they show symptoms, and asymptomatic carriers may not show symptoms at all. If everyone wears masks, that can help limit transmission and exposure. The guidelines now state, “CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain,” like grocery stores and pharmacies.
This is a shift from the CDC’s previous guidelines, which only recommended masks for health care workers and for people who were either sick or caring for someone ill. It comes in response to new scientific understandings about how contagious the coronavirus can be, even among people who aren’t showing symptoms, and it follows the lead of many Asian countries and the Czech Republic, where widespread or mandatory mask usage seems to have helped to flatten the curve.
Here’s what you need to keep in mind when you’re either buying or making a face mask.
Cloth masks are all most people need
The CDC recommends that most people wear reusable cloth masks. Professional grade N95 respirators and surgical masks should be reserved for healthcare workers because they have more sustained, direct exposure to the virus.
Studies have found that cloth masks are less effective at filtering out virus particles than professional or medical grade masks. Their efficacy also varies widely depending on factors like the kind of mask, the materials used and layers of fabric, and its fit on the wearer’s face. Still, experts say, a cloth mask helps reduce your exposure and other people’s exposure to you.
It’s also a physical reminder to be cautious.
“The reason to put on a mask is because — and I do this in the hospital — is, you stop touching your face,” David Price, a pulmonologist at New York’s Weill Cornell Medical Center, said during a recent online seminar.
How to make your own masks cheaply and easily
A DIY mask can be safe, simple, and cost-effective, if you follow directions. Over the past few weeks, video tutorials have popped up online for people who want to make their own masks. Many people have already found that mask-making is a great excuse to break out their sewing machines.
You can also create a mask out of materials like hair ties and an old T-shirt or scarf with no sewing required. The CDC has instructions for two no-sew masks, including one made with a bandanna and a coffee filter. Surgeon General Jerome Adams uploaded a tutorial of his own to YouTube on Friday.
If you already have those materials lying around, or if you already have a pair of scissors and a T-shirt you never wear anymore, making your own mask is essentially free.
Daniel Griffin, an infectious disease expert at Columbia University Medical Center, told NPR that a tight-weave cotton is the best material for a reusable mask, since the virus tends to survive longer on synthetic fabrics. If you want to quickly get a sense of your mask’s filtration quality, experts say you can simply hold it up to the light — if you can see the fibers, you should use heavier fabric. According to one preliminary study, tightly woven quilters’ cotton may be able to filter out particles more effectively than some surgical masks.
How to buy masks
Thousands of reusable masks are available from sellers on Etsy, most for around $10 each. Etsy does stress that masks sold on its platform aren’t medical grade and any individual seller that claims otherwise is violating the site’s terms.
Many fashion outlets are also selling to the general public. Menswear brand Buck Mason and chef-wear brand Hedley & Bennett are both donating one mask for every one sold. And T-shirt manufacturer Custom Ink is selling 12-packs of cloth masks for $30.
How to wear a mask safely
It’s important to follow best practices when putting on, wearing, and removing a cloth mask. The CDC says it should “fit snugly but comfortably against the side of the face,” cover both your nose and mouth, and should be washed regularly. You can pop it in your washing machine, if you have one.
An analysis from British medical journal The Lancet was unable to detect any traces of the virus on treated cloth after two days.
Remember, though, a mask isn’t an excuse to let important habits like social distancing and washing your hands fall by the wayside, Joseph Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment science at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said during a press conference last week. In combination, those smaller measure can help reduce the spread of the virus.
“The scale and scope of what we’re facing, I believe, requires or mandates that we take every precaution we can,” says Allen.