Wednesday, March 18, 2020

The mask/no mask dilemma

During tree pollen season, I often wear a surgical mask outdoors to minimize allergies.  In February, I tried to restock ahead of the season. I also heard about a very bad flu virus that would make wearing a mask in crowded places prudent.  Too late, I realized that, not only were the stores near me sold out, they were not going to get any more in the foreseeable future.

I read intriguing posts on the internets about homemade masks, but wasn't sure if they were nothing more than dangerous placebos.

Please read Zeynep Tufekci's Why Telling People They Don’t Need Masks Backfired (NYT paywall)

First, she is right about the messaging.  Lying to the public, even for altruistic reasons, is still counterproductive.  I prefer to be treated like an adult and told that there are people who cannot stay home and need the masks more than I do.

Surgical masks, though not foolproof, offer meaningful protection for both the wearer and the people they are in contact with.

This doesn't help me now when stores don't have anything to buy and my doctor is saving masks for her own use and for her most critically ill patients (or caregivers.)  Professor Tufekci helpfully added a link to a paper about the effectiveness of different materials you can use to sew your own face masks.

I'm about to crank out some masks for my daily walks to protect me from pollen and stray human contact. I'm also making some for people I know who are essential workers and risking their lives to keep our society going.

This table is helpful, but takes a little interpretation. The first 2 columns are virus reductions over wearing no mask with surgical masks and home-made masks with a variety of materials. The third column is the pressure drop across the fabric.

That pressure drop is really important. If a mask is too hot, and you take it off, you are in danger again.  So you want to find that sweet spot of comfortable to wear for hours, and good filtration.  My normal go-to mask is the 3M micropore one.  I can wear it comfortably for long haul flights, taking it off only to eat and drink.

Two layers of a tea towel (a thicker fabric,) is as effective as a surgical mask, but it will be as comfortable as wearing a vacuum cleaner bag.

@pdxsquared showed pictures of her home-made ear loop masks.  She also shared per pattern.  One commentator said that she was irresponsible for posting it--2 layers of quilting cotton isn't real protection.  Well, the peer-reviewed lab-tested experiment showed that 2 layers of a pillowcase (percale, similar to quilting cotton) is 62% effective vs the 96% effectiveness of a real surgical mask, and has a similar comfort rating.  You should absolutely minimize contact with other people right now.  But, if you have to go out to work or get supplies or exercise, wearing DIY masks is definitely helpful.

I'm intrigued by the 75% effectiveness of "cotton mix" but can't figure out what that is.  I may try some cotton/nylon/spandex shirting I was saving for a special project someday.  That day is today.  I'm also going to use fun quilting and shirting fabrics.  Right now, I need more joy and fun.

BTW, I saw an old DIY emergency face mask pattern that suggested using 3 layers of cotton, laid at right angles.  This makes sense because fabrics typically have higher thread count (and smaller holes) in one direction.  Perhaps I should use cotton mix with a layer of silk scrap in the middle?

If you are in a good financial place, spread the wealth.

I told our housecleaner that, because my husband continues to get paid, so will she.  She cannot work from home so I'm just mailing the check to her house.  Her husband is heroically driving city buses to get essential workers to their jobs--and doing it without protective equipment.  I'm sending a bunch of masks to them along with the check.

We're paying students to weed our yard (while staying socially distant.)  I'm making masks for them, too.  I know it helps with pollen and mold.

Show me what you are making and how you are coping.  We're anxious, but know that we are luckier than most.  I'm in no danger of running out of fabric.  ;-)

Physician/sewing blogger Kaddidlehopper has some good tips and a free pattern:

ElleC left a link in the comments on how Dr Dr Chen Xiaoting improvises surgical masks with disposable tissues or TP encased in washable/reusable cotton.


  1. Might cotton mix mean poly-cotton? That seems to be more common in most common t-shirt blends.

    1. I received some European tea towels from my MIL & SIL. They are a spongy twill that doesn't leave lint. They are much thicker than the ones sold at IKEA. They are looser weave than denim, but have the softness of old 100% cotton jeans.

      Physician/sewing blogger Kaddidlehopper has some good tips and a free pattern:

  2. This is great! The balance between comfort and protection is so tricky. Thanks for sharing this!

  3. I found this site, which has a slightly different idea for protection, a piece of non-absorbent material inserted inside the mask. The article mentions a tissue, but I was thinking coffee filters might be more effective. I will be interested in hearing what you think.

    1. That's a very good article. Straight talk. Honest about what we know and don't know. Thanks for sharing it.

  4. Katie’s pattern looks fun and easy

  5. Thank you for the link to Kaddidlehopper pattern! I had found the one from the doctor in Taiwan, but the directions were hard for me to follow yesterday, love the part about step 2 - find a tailor! Today they make a bit more sense. Also thank you for the information on the tea towel fabric. It sounds like they have much nicer ones than are readily available here.


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