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What you need to know about DIY face masks

From how they can be used to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to how to make your own, and more

With personal protective equipment reserved for healthcare workers battling COVID-19 on the front lines, many people in St. Albert are making their own face masks to wear at home or in public. 

Wearing a homemade face mask can take some time to get used to, but can help prevent the virus from being unknowingly spread to others, said Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health.

The St. Albert Gazette spoke with David Marchant, associate professor in the Department of Medical Microbiology at the University of Alberta, about what to keep in mind when it comes to DIY face masks. 

How effective are non-medical face masks? 

There hasn't been a lot of research done into how effective cloth face masks are in protecting the person wearing them from COVID-19.

"Whether or not they prevent you from getting infected in the general public, I'm highly skeptical of that. In my professional opinion, the vast majority of infections are spread through digital transmission," Marchant said. 

Studies have shown viruses including COVID-19 can remain infectious for weeks or months when left on surfaces, he said, and it can infect you if the virus is transferred onto your hands, and then to your face.

However, homemade masks can protect those around you, which can be especially helpful as researchers discovered a significant portion of people with COVID-19 lack symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). 

"The big gamechanger with this one compared to the SARS virus in 2003 is this one can be spread by asymptomatic people. So you're walking around, you're feeling fine, but you're spreading the virus," Marchant said. 

Masks are good in that they restrict the flow of air from your mouth out into the environment, so any aerosols or droplets that may be sprayed around by "speaking moistly" are caught by the mask, "as our Prime Minister so eloquently put it," he joked.

Washing your hands frequently and maintaining social distancing remain the best defences against getting COVID-19, he said.

But wearing non-medical face coverings in public may help protect others, encourage more mindful behaviour including avoiding touching your mouth, nose and eyes, and some peace of mind for those around you. 

"If you pay for your groceries and you've got a mask on, you're showing (frontline workers) that you're being conscientious, that you're going to protect them and you're going to protect yourself." 

What material should I use? 

The CDC recommends two layers of tightly woven 100-per-cent cotton fabric, such as quilter’s material or bedsheets with a high thread count.

Marchant said you don't want to make the mask so thick it restricts breathing, but anything covering the mouth and nose will stifle and disrupt the flow of air. 

The CDC stresses the use of "face coverings" in its recommendation, so not necessarily "face masks." A face covering can be any cloth that covers the nose and mouth, including a scarf or bandana wrapped around the face.

"I don't actually wear a mask, I wear a scarf around my neck that I bought just for this. I tie it so that when I go into a store, I can pull it up over my mouth and my nose. Especially if there's a lot of people around," Marchant said. 

"Cloth masks are made out of fabric-like paper that is tightly woven, surgical cloth masks will be a tighter weave and will do a better job, but anything covering the mouth or nose is going to stifle the flow of air, and that in itself will prevent dissemination of the virus." 

What pattern should I use? 

There seems to be a never-ending variety of patterns for homemade face masks, though it's best to follow the advice of public health officials when making your own. The CDC has a useful step-by-step tutorial posted online, or you can watch one of our video tutorials.


How should I wear and take care of my mask? 

Public health officials say non-medical masks are a practical way of protecting those around you, if used correctly. 

The CDC recommends face masks should fit snugly but comfortably against the side of the face, be secured with ties or ear loops, include multiple layers of fabric, allow for breathing without restriction, and be able to be laundered or washed without damage or change to shape. 

Masks should fit tightly around the mouth and nose to prevent air from escaping out. Using pipe cleaner or copper wire to create a nose bridge can help make the mask fit more snug.

Marchant said face-masks can turn from being protective to a source of infection if not worn or taken care of properly. One peer-reviewed study found concentrations of the virus around the outside of the mask, which is also the likely area to be touched on removal.

"You should treat it like it's potentially contaminated," he said. "So if you're not taking care of the masks and you're not washing them regularly, they could become quite a source of infection."

Viruses like COVID-19 are quickly neutralized by hand soap and water, he said, breaking them up into their constituent proteins and rendering them non-infectious.

Make sure to not touch your face while wearing a facemask, either, in case the mask is contaminated. 

"If you touch or scratch your face with the mask, you're going to get the virus on your fingers."