The CDC recommends that everyone -- sick or healthy -- wear a cloth face mask in places where it can be hard to stay 6 feet away from others, like grocery stores. That’s because studies show that people can spread coronavirus even if they don’t have symptoms (called asymptomatic) or before they have symptoms (called presymptomatic). In fact, you might be the most contagious just before symptoms begin.
Before you buy or make a mask, learn which type is best and how to wear it.
How Face Masks Work
When someone who has COVID-19 coughs, sneezes, or talks, they send tiny droplets with the coronavirus into the air. That's where a mask can help.
Can face masks protect me from the coronavirus?
A cloth face mask won't totally block the coronavirus. But it’s an added layer of protection for you and the people around you when you use it along with regular handwashing and social distancing measures like staying 6 feet away from others.
Types of Face Masks for Coronavirus
Masks for health care workers
N95 respirators and surgical masks should be reserved for health care workers and first responders. Because there aren’t enough of these masks for everyone, it's important that they go to the doctors, nurses, and other medical staff who need them most.
- N95 respirator masks fit tightly around your face. They filter out 95% or more of the smallest particles in the air. But they have to fit just right in order to work.
- Surgical masks are often blue with white borders. They fit loosely across your nose and mouth. These masks shield against the large droplets that come from a sick person's cough or sneeze, but they're too loose to protect against all germs. And they can't block the tiniest particles that may carry coronavirus.
Masks for non-health care workers
Cloth masks are best for people who don't work in health care. Here are some tips to keep in mind when making your own or looking for handmade masks:
- You can sew the fabric, tie it around your face, or fold it around some hair ties for ear loops.
- Use at least two layers of material.
- You might add a pocket for a filter. Be sure to take it out before you wash the mask.
- Add a copper or wire ribbon on the nose of the mask to help it fit better.
To buy other kinds of masks:
- Check hardware stores for dust masks. They look a lot like N95 respirators but don’t filter out as many particles.
- Neoprene masks can help stop the droplets that may carry the virus.
- Try using a neck gaiter -- a piece of material tied in a loop -- made of stretchy synthetic fabric. Fold it into multiple layers if the material is thin.
Face Mask Comparisons
Ear loops vs. ties
Because you can adjust it, a mask that ties behind your head will usually fit your face better than one that loops around your ears. But ties can get tangled up in the wash, and some people prefer the fit of ear loops. They’re also better for places like hair salons and barber shops.
Filter vs. no filter
A series of layers of fabric makes more places for virus particles to stick instead of going out into the air. A filter helps in this process. But too many layers might make it hard to breathe. Use the mask that’s most comfortable so you’re more likely to keep wearing it. Be sure to check that the filter material doesn’t have something dangerous like fiberglass in it.
How to Make a No-Sew Face Mask
The easiest way to make a face mask is to use the CDC's no-sew method:
- Use a bandanna or other square of cloth measuring about 20 inches on each side.
- Fold it in half.
- Fold the top third down and the bottom third up so you have a long rectangle.
- Slide the rectangle through two rubber bands or elastic hair ties until they’re about 6 inches apart.
- Fold the sides of the fabric in toward the middle, and tuck the ends together.
- Hook the elastics over your ears and adjust the fabric so it’s snug against your face but not too tight.
How well you can breathe through a material is as important as how well it stops the spread of disease. If it’s too hard to breathe, it can be dangerous for people who have respiratory problems. Heavy breathing might also affect how well the mask works.
Research has found that “quilter’s cotton” filters out a lot of particles, especially tight weaves with thicker threads, such as batik. Masks with cotton outer layers and flannel inner layers also work well.
Another study on how well fabrics filtered out certain germs recommended a pillowcase or cotton T-shirt because of its stretch.
The researchers gave these rankings for fabrics:
- Tea towel (two layers)
- Cotton mix fabric
- 100% cotton T-shirt (two layers)
- Antimicrobial pillowcase
- Standard pillowcase
Despite its high rating, the researchers didn’t recommend using a tea towel because it was too hard to breathe through.
What face mask filters can I use?
Some household items may work as a filter layer in a homemade mask, including:
- Paper products that you can breathe through, such as coffee filters, paper towels, and toilet paper.
- HEPA filters with multiple layers block small particles almost as well as N95 respirators, studies show. But they might have tiny fibers that can get into your lungs. If you cut up a filter to use in a mask, be sure to sandwich the filter material between layers of cotton or other woven fabric. Don’t use any filter that contains fiberglass.
- You can also cut up a polypropylene shopping bag, the kind that has a soft fabric-like feel, and insert the material between the layers of your mask. It’s washable but should be air-dried to last longer.
Where to Buy Face Masks or Face Mask Materials
You can find mask materials in your closet, in the form of an old T-shirt or pillowcase. Fabric and quilting stores are also a good resource.
Many crafters sell handmade masks on online markets. Check social media for local offerings.
What to look for when buying a mask
If you’re buying a cloth mask, check that it uses designs or sewing instructions from experts like the CDC or your local hospital. Choose a mask with more than one layer of fabric. Make sure it’s not too hard to breathe through the material.
Fit is just as important as air flow. Look for a mask that fits your face well and is comfortable enough that you’ll be willing to use it. There shouldn’t be any gaps around your nose, mouth, and chin.
Be sure you can take off the mask using only the ties or ear loops. You should be able to wash and dry your mask without damaging it or changing its shape.
When Should You Wear a Mask?
The CDC recommends that everyone over age 2 wear cloth face masks in public places where it’s hard to stay 6 feet away from other people.
Wear a face mask if you’re sick and around other people or animals, even at home. Caregivers should use them when cleaning and disinfecting a sick person’s bedroom or bathroom.
If you need to call 911, put on a mask before medical help arrives.
Remember that a mask should be used in addition to other COVID-19 safety steps. It doesn’t replace them. You still need to limit your contact with other people, wash your hands often with soap for at least 20 seconds, and keep common surfaces clean.
People Who Shouldn’t Wear Face Masks
CDC guidelines say certain people shouldn’t wear masks:
- Children under 2
- People who have trouble breathing
- Someone who’s unconscious
- Someone who can’t move or take off a mask without help
How to Wear a Face Mask
Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Make sure the mask has no holes.
Secure the mask with ties behind your head. If it has loops, pull them behind your ears. Fit the mask around your nose and mouth, and under your chin. There should be no space between your face and the mask. Pinch the top edge of the mask around the bridge of your nose.
The mask should fit tight around your face but still feel comfortable. You should be able to breathe easily through it. Don't wear a mask if it's hard for you to breathe.
Don’t touch the mask while you’re wearing it.
How to Remove Your Mask
Take the mask off after you've worn it or if it gets damp. Try not to touch the front of the mask when you remove it. That's where the germs are. Instead, pull it off by the ear loops or ties.
Surgical masks are meant for health care workers. But if you have one, wear it once and then throw it away. Put it in a plastic bag and then the trash. Wash your hands with soap and water afterward.
How to Clean and Care for Your Mask
Wash cloth masks with hot water and detergent or soap after each wear. If your mask has a filter, take it out and throw it away before washing. Put the masks in your washing machine and hang them to dry. Wash your hands when you’re done.
Before you use the mask again, check for holes. Be sure it’s not frayed and doesn’t gap around your face.
Some theories suggest that hanging a mask in sunlight can disinfect it. Studies have found that at least 15 minutes of UVC light makes the coronavirus that causes SARS inactive. But that’s different from the UVA and UVB light of the sun, and there’s no research yet on whether UVC works on the new coronavirus. It’s best to stick with washing a mask in hot water.
Face Mask Myths and Facts
Are masks mandatory?
Some state and local governments have issued orders that require face masks in public places. Workers in certain businesses also have to wear them because they’re in constant close contact with others.
The CDC, the nation’s top public health agency, urges everyone to wear a mask when you’re in a public place where it’s hard to stay at least 6 feet away from other people.
Are masks useless if there’s a gap?
A mask that doesn’t fit exactly may not be totally useless, especially if it has a high filter level. And even cloth masks that fit perfectly can’t stop all particles. But a mask with a gap or hole won’t work nearly as well as one no space around your nose and mouth.
Should you wear a mask inside your home?
You don’t need to wear a mask at home unless you’re sick or caring for someone who’s sick.
Should you wear a mask when exercising outdoors?
It’s fine to exercise outdoors without a mask as long as you keep at least 6 feet between yourself and other people.
Do masks trap carbon dioxide and viruses?
Masks may trap particles of the coronavirus. That’s why the CDC recommends them. The virus could then spread if you touch the mask and don’t wash your hands afterward.