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Picking the right material for a face mask can help keep you safe. Getty Images
  • Using doubled up 600-thread count pillowcases or flannel pajamas, you could make a mask that provides up to 60 percent filtration.
  • Other materials that can be used to filter out dangerous particles include HEPA filters, vacuum cleaner bags, and quilter’s cotton.
  • But be careful of materials like household air filters that may contain fiberglass. They could still damage your lungs, even if they filter out virus particles.

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began advising Americans to wear face coverings in public to “slow the spread” of COVID-19.

However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports the supply of surgical masks (and other protective gear) could run short during the pandemic — meaning little availability of masks for people in the United States.

“The FDA is aware that as the COVID-19 outbreak continues to expand globally, the supply chain for these devices will continue to be stressed if demand exceeds available supplies,” the agency said in a statement.

The solution, according to health officials, is to improvise.

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams posted a video to Twitter earlier this month explaining how to improvise your own face mask.

But making DIY protection involves careful consideration of what you have to work with.

Some materials can filter particles better than others, significantly affecting how well your homemade mask may protect you from infection.

“Cloth face coverings fashioned from household items or made at home from common materials at low cost can be used as an additional, voluntary public health measure,” the CDC said in statement.

But the CDC emphasized: “It is critical to emphasize that maintaining 6-feet social distancing remains important to slowing the spread of the virus.”

Initially, people in the United States were told by the surgeon general and World Health Organization to not use face masks because they were unlikely to help, and because they were needed by healthcare providers.

But experts insist that has now led to confusion, as the CDC now supports homemade masks.

“It’s very unfortunate that the CDC and the surgeon general’s office initially, because they were panicked at masks being hoarded and unavailable for health workers, chose to address that by telling people that masks aren’t helpful. Masks are always helpful,” Dr. Benjamin LaBrot, founder and CEO of Floating Doctors and a clinical professor of medical education at the Keck School of Medicine of University of Southern California, told Healthline.

“Whether they filter well or not, they are very helpful at protecting other people as well, especially from silent infections,” he said.

People with “silent infections” are asymptomatic. They don’t have fevers, coughs, or other typical symptoms of COVID-19. They could, unknowingly, spread the virus to others, finds a recently published study that examined infections of residents in a King County, Washington, nursing home.

If they wear a mask they can protect others, even if it isn’t a N95 mask.

“When an otherwise credible source comes out with something that’s essentially a lie — even if it’s for the good intentions of trying to make sure people didn’t hoard masks — now it means that people will look more skeptically on real information provided by those previously credible sources,” LaBrot added.

According to LaBrot, a surgical mask (that’s not an N95) only filters out about 60 to 65 percent of particles, which is normal for this type of mask.

He explains that by using doubled up 600-thread count pillowcases or flannel pajamas, you could make a mask that provides up to 60 percent filtration.

He emphasizes that “anyone can figure this out,” and that the “light test” is an easy way to tell how well a material may filter.

“Hold it up to the light. If you can see light through the fabric, that’s probably not as good as something that you can’t see light through,” he said. “So, this is one where your intuitive approach is going to be effective. The thicker it is, the denser it is, the more likely it’s going to filter better.”

Cotton T-shirts and pajamas aren’t the only options. Other choices could filter much better.

“There are definitely some DIY masks that might actually approximate an N95 mask, although, of course, it’s hard to fit it properly to get that same level of protection,” LaBrot said.

“HEPA filters, vacuum cleaner bags have done really well. Quilter’s cotton, which has a particularly high thread count, actually provides up to about 80 percent filtration of small particles, and actually performs better than a regular surgical mask,” he said.

But LaBrot warns that as you start using thicker stuff, you’ll run up against two issues.

First, it eventually gets hard to breathe. Second, some things, like household air or furnace filters, could be made of things like fiberglass and other substances that aren’t necessarily safe to breathe.

“So if you’re going to be using anything that’s not cotton, I’d definitely want to be careful of what materials you’re using,” LaBrot cautioned.

Health officials have reversed course and now recommend that people use face masks to prevent transmission of the new coronavirus.

A shortage of commercial masks means that improvising face coverings at home is the best way to protect ourselves and ensure a supply of masks for healthcare providers.

Cotton clothing can be used to make masks that filter about as well as normal surgical masks. The thicker the material is, the better it works. Quilter’s cotton could outperform normal masks.

Experts say that although vacuum cleaner bags and air filters can also be used, ensure that the material is safe to breathe through, and avoid materials that contain things like fiberglass.

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