As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread, the CDC recommends all Americans wear some kind of cloth facial covering when in public to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2. On Jan. 20, 2021, the White House issued an executive order requiring face masks to be worn on all federal property. The CDC also requires masks on all forms of public transportation, as well as when inside transportation hubs.
Wearing a face mask can help slow the spread of COVID-19 and even save lives. In fact, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, now recommends wearing two masks due to the new COVID-19 variants emerging globally.
There are many options for purchasing face masks online, but you can also easily make face masks at home for free or at a very low cost.
Note: This material is provided for informational purposes only. Money Crashers does not claim any of these mask designs can protect you from COVID-19. Please continue to stay updated with and follow CDC guidelines.
CDC Face Mask Guidelines
The CDC notes that any homemade face masks should follow these guidelines:
- 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
- Be able to be laundered and machine dried without damage or change to its shape
- Contain an inner pocket for an added filter
You should not wear masks that:
- Do not fit properly or cause large gaps around your face
- Are made from material that’s hard to breathe through, like plastic or leather
- Are made from loosely woven material, like fabrics that let light pass through
- Are made from a single layer of fabric
- Contain exhalation valves or vents
Additionally, a scarf or ski mask is not a substitute for a facial mask. The CDC also states that you should not use a face shield as a substitute for a mask.
Proper fit is vital. A poorly fitted cloth face covering can leak viral particles out the side of the mask. Gaps along the top of the mask, the bridge of your nose, or the short sides of the mask can also leave you vulnerable. When making a DIY face mask, make sure it sits securely on your face with no visible gaps and that you can breathe easily.
Which Fabrics Work Best?
When it comes to choosing an appropriate fabric for face masks, you must walk a fine line. You need a material thick enough to stop viral particles, which are incredibly small, yet thin enough that you can breathe comfortably.
According to The New York Times, scientists around the world have tested (and continue to test) everyday household items, from furnace filters to vacuum bags to flannel pajamas, to figure out which make the most effective face masks.
SciTechDaily reported on a June 2020 study published in the journal ACS Nano. It analyzed the filtration capacity of 32 cloth fabrics, from cotton to synthetics. Researchers found that tightly woven 100% cotton with raised fibers appears to be more efficient at filtering than fabrics that lacked this feature. Woven synthetics with moderate yarn counts also performed better than other materials.
Additionally, a September 2020 study published in the journal Pathogens analyzed the viral filtration efficiency of six different types of cloth masks. The mask that filtered out the highest percentage of viral loads was a cotton mask with a vacuum bag or dried baby wipe insert as an additional filter.
Although research is still ongoing, North Carolina NPR affiliate WFDD notes that Scott Segal, chairman of anesthesiology at Wake Forest Baptist Health suggests doing a light test. Hold the fabric up to a bright light. If the light passes easily through the fibers, and you can see the fibers themselves, it’s not a good candidate for a face mask. If the fabric is dense and the light doesn’t pass through it easily, it’s a better choice for a face mask.
The CDC recommends that face masks have two or more layers of breathable fabric.
Some materials that might make an effective face mask include:
- High-thread-count cotton fabric, sheets, or pillowcases
- Heavyweight shirts
- Batik fabric
- Quilting fabric
In a different interview with NBC, Segal advises people to avoid knit fabrics, which could let particles through easily. Woven fabrics, like batik, are better choices. If you decide to add an additional layer for filtration, consider using these materials:
- PM2.5 Filters. Mitchell Grayson, a pediatric allergy, asthma, and immunology specialist, told The Strategist these PM2.5s filter out particles 2.5 microns or larger in size. According to the World Health Organization, the respiratory droplets that commonly carry and transmit COVID-19 are between 5 and 10 microns, though aerosols can be smaller (though the WHO notes scientists don’t yet fully understand aerosols’ role in transmission). You can find PM2.5 filters on Amazon.
- Vacuum Cleaner Bags. An August 2020 study published in the Journal of Hospital Infection examined several different materials to determine which was most effective for viral filtration. Researchers discovered that of all the nontraditional materials they tested, vacuum cleaner bags resulted in the greatest reduction in the risk of infection. A 2020 BMJ Open journal study found similar results when testing HEPA bags. In fact, they filtered out particles smaller than 3M brand N95 masks. But the study’s authors warned the bags themselves may also pose health risks after being cut because the material’s layers fall apart, exposing the wearer to the material’s components, the inhalation safety of which researchers could not verify. You can find vacuum bags on Amazon.
- Polypropylene Fabric. A June 2020 study published in Nano Letters found that polypropylene fabric (common brand name Oly-fun) was an effective filtration choice for homemade masks. When used in multiple layers, its filtration capability was superior or at least comparable with some medical-grade masks. You can find polypropylene fabric on Amazon or at hobby stores like JoAnn Fabric.
- Dried Baby Wipes. Researchers with the University of British Columbia found that when inserted into a well-fitted mask, dried baby wipes are more effective at filtering out 5- or 10-micron particles than a poorly fitted N95 mask. (You can read the full study at arXiv.org.) You can find baby wipes at Amazon or your local grocery store.
No-Sew Face Masks
No sewing machine? No problem. There are several homemade face mask designs that don’t require a needle and thread.
Quick CDC Face Masks
The CDC has released instructions for Americans to make quick, easy face masks from supplies they already have at home. Follow these instructions and see the diagrams on the CDC website.
No-Sew T-Shirt Mask
According to the CDC, you can make a quick no-sew mask from an old T-shirt.
- Pros: The most significant advantage of this design is that it’s easy and free, as all of us have an old T-shirt we can cut up and use for a mask. But remember, the thicker the fabric, the more protection it can offer.
- Cons: T-shirt material is often thin, which won’t offer the best protection compared to other fabrics.
- Measuring tape (or ruler)
- Pencil or pen
- Lay your T-shirt out flat on a work surface. Starting from the bottom of the T-shirt, use the measuring tape to measure 7 to 8 inches up. Here, draw a line or dotted line across the shirt with a pencil or pen.
- Cut along the line going all the way across the shirt, making sure you cut through both the front and back. Discard the top of the shirt.
- Use your measuring tape to measure 6 to 7 inches starting from one of the short edges of the fabric and mark it with your pencil. Turn that edge toward you and measure about an inch from both long edges and mark it with a dot at the short edge of the fabric. Draw a line from both dots to the line you previously drew. Starting at the edge you marked, cut along the lines, making sure you cut through the front and back of the shirt. Then, place your scissors between the front and back of the shirt, cutting through the two small strips on either side of the large square at the point furthest from the large square, which should be a seam. These will be the tie strings that go around your head.
- Place the square mask over your mouth and nose and secure it on your head by tying the upper strips around the upper portion of your head above your ears and the lower strings around your neck at the base of your head.
Bandana Face Mask
The CDC also released this easy-to-make design using a bandana and coffee filters. You can also use mask-appropriate fabric in lieu of a bandana.
- Pros: This face mask is free if you already own a bandana or fabric.
- Cons: The rubber bands or hair ties for this design might be uncomfortable for some.
- Triangular-shaped (cone) coffee filter (not flat basket)
- Rubber bands or hair ties
- Using the scissors, cut the bottom half off the coffee filter and discard. Set the top half aside.
- Fold the bandana in half and lay it flat on a work surface lengthwise. Place the coffee filter lengthwise in the center.
- Fold the top third and bottom third of the bandana over the filter, keeping the filter in its center spot. The filter should now be completely covered.
- Put the rubber bands or hair ties around the edges of the bandana, pushing them toward the middle until they’re about 6 inches apart.
- Fold the outer edges toward the middle and tuck them together. They will stay in place when you secure the mask to your face. You can also secure the folds with a piece of masking or duct tape (transparent tape doesn’t hold well).
Remove the coffee filter before washing, and use a new coffee filter each time you fold it.
Origami Folded Vacuum Bag Face Mask
Indiana University professor Jiangmei Wu designed a no-sew face mask made using vacuum bags. According to The New York Times’ mask materials report, early tests show that vacuum bags remove 60% to 87% of particles.
- Pros: This design is free if you already have vacuum bags.
- Cons: You need a printer to print the template for this design. The folding technique might also be challenging for some.
To make Wu’s origami vacuum bag face mask, you only need a handful of supplies many people already have at home:
- 1 (4-inch) twist tie
- 2 (7-inch) elastic straps
- 1 high-efficiency vacuum bag (11-inch-by-11 inch)
Get the full instructions and print the template on the Indiana University website. Just print the template on an 8.5-by-11-inch page at 100% with no scaling and follow the folding instructions. You can also watch Wu go through the folding process in a YouTube video.
No-Sew Shop Towel Mask
Peter Tsai, the materials scientist who invented the charging technology used in N95 masks, told The Washington Post car shop towels can make an effective mask because the material is so dense and you can wash and reuse them. You can also use them as a filter for a cloth mask as an additional protective layer.
You can make a no-sew shop towel mask using basic materials many people already have on hand:
Get the full instructions on Jim Happy’s YouTube channel.
Sewn Face Mask Tutorials
If you know how to sew, these tutorials provide a more advanced design. Some require a sewing machine, while others you can hand-sew.
Standard Fabric Face Mask
Kaiser Permanente offers detailed step-by-step instructions with clear pictures for making a standard face mask using a sewing machine. Kaiser recommends using high-quality cotton due to its breathability and ability to hold up well over frequent washings. The cotton should have the same weight and feel as a high-quality dress shirt or bed sheet fabric.
- Pros: This design uses ties to secure the mask to the head, which might last longer than elastic straps. Cloth head straps might also be less irritating to facial skin compared to elastic straps.
- Cons: Head ties might come loose during the day if not double knotted.
Get the full instructions at Kaiser Permanente.
Rag Mask With Nose Clamp
You can make these masks with just about any fabric you have at home. The design features a filter, which increases the effectiveness of the mask. The site discusses several different types of fabric that make effective filters, including anything with a high thread count. But you can also use fiberglass-free air-conditioning filters.
It also features a nose wire to secure the mask around your nose for added protection. That’s especially helpful for those who wear glasses since those tend to fog up when you breathe in other masks. They recommend copper wire. But you can use any type of secure wire, from paperclips to garden wire.
- Pros: This design is wide on the face and uses straps for secure coverage.
- Cons: Some people might be uncomfortable having more of their face covered.
Get the full instructions at Rag Mask.
Simple Hand-Sewn Mask
You can hand-sew this double-layered face mask or use a sewing machine for greater speed. If you’re entirely new to hand-sewing, this is an excellent design to start with, as it’s relatively simple.
- Pros: This is a simple design suitable for beginners.
- Cons: This face mask might be less secure because it lacks a nose wire.
Get the full instructions from CNN.
Masks Customized for Adults, Teens, & Children
This tutorial allows you to customize the size of the mask for men, women, and children, ensuring a proper fit for everyone in the family. There are also several variations to choose from, such as removable filters and a wire insert over the nose.
- Pros: With several sizes and design variations, you can create a mask to suit anyone in the family.
- Cons: Some designs could be difficult to make if you’re a novice sewer.
Get the full instructions on Craft Passion.
Reversible Burp Cloth Face Mask
This tutorial uses a burp cloth and two additional fabric swatches to make a high-quality hand-sewn mask. The design is also reversible, so if you have two swatches of colorful fabric to use, you can change up the design daily.
- Pros: Nanay’s video is fun, and the instructions are easy to follow. Nanay films all the different stitches up close, which can be very helpful for beginners. It’s also flexible. If you don’t have a burp cloth, you can use another type of fabric, such as a flour sack towel.
- Cons: The tutorial uses a disposable face mask as a pattern, so you can’t make it if you don’t have access to one.
Get the full instructions on Nanay Express’ YouTube channel.
Face Mask With Filter
This tutorial by Jennifer Tessmer-Tuck, vice president of medical affairs at North Memorial Health Hospital, shows you how to make a homemade mask with a filter pocket.
- Pros: Tessmer-Tuck’s video is very clear and easy to follow. She says her design takes 20 minutes to complete.
- Cons: You must know how to use a sewing machine for this design. You must also print a template for the design.
Get the full instructions on Tessmer-Tuck’s YouTube channel.
Clear Face Mask
For those who have professions or responsibilities that require people to be able to see their mouths when they talk, such as those who work with the elderly, deaf, or hard of hearing, clear face masks are a must. Additionally, many caregivers report that regular masks make their patients or family members deeply uneasy.
- Pros: This clear face design makes it easy for others to see your mouth and facial expressions. Plus, if you don’t have a sewing machine, a hot glue gun or needle and thread will work as well.
- Cons: It might be difficult to find the clear, flexible plastic you need for the design. The Hearing, Speech & Deaf Center (HSDC) recommends using a clear plastic stadium tote bag.
The supplies you’ll need include:
- Durable fabric (like flannel or high-thread-count fabric)
- Clear plastic
- Sewing machine, hot glue gun, or needle and thread
- Dish soap
Get the full instructions on the HSDC website.
Additionally, if you scroll through the Open Source COVID19 Medical Supplies Facebook Group, you can find several tutorials for this particular design.
Cleaning Handmade Face Masks
You must clean handmade face masks properly after each use. When masks become wet from the moisture exhaled in your breath, they’re less effective. The CDC says you can safely clean and sterilize handmade masks in a washing machine. Having several face masks at home and in your car helps ensure you always have a clean mask ready to use.
Raina MacIntyre, an epidemiologist and doctor at the University of New South Wales, told The Washington Post that washing face masks and then laying them in the sun to dry sanitizes them, as sunlight is an effective means to kill germs. The CDC also says you can put masks into your regular laundry, including the dryer.
Making Masks to Donate
When the pandemic began to spread in March 2020, many people started making homemade masks to donate to doctors, nurses, first responders, or senior citizens in their community. Fabric store JoAnn enlisted the help of its customers and set an ambitious goal of making and donating 300 million masks, which they met.
They’ve now set a goal to make a mask for everyone in the U.S. They’re even offering free supplies through their Take and Make program and use of their sewing machines, which they’ve set up per social distancing guidelines, to those who want to make masks to give away.
Deaconess Health System has a comprehensive list of organizations asking for homemade face mask donations. Among those in need are health care workers in nursing homes, hospices, urgent care centers, substance abuse treatment centers, and oncology centers.
Before making or sending masks to donate, reach out to the organization first to find out the guidelines they have in place for staff or patient use. You can also check out the Facebook Group Open Source COVID19 Medical Supplies, where thousands of medical professionals, home sewers, and inventors have come together to share design ideas for homemade masks and ventilators.
It’s also important to follow some basic guidelines when making masks to donate.
- Do not make masks if you’re experiencing any symptoms of illness.
- Make a mask for yourself first and wear it while making masks for others.
- Wash your hands before working with materials.
- Wash in hot water and dry the fabric several times before creating the mask to avoid shrinkage.
There are also many professionals — like teachers, voice therapists, and those who work with the elderly, deaf, or hard of hearing — who need clear face masks (masks that allow others to see your mouth). People who care for patients or family members with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia also need clear face masks.
The COVID-19 pandemic has already put incredible strain on our nation’s hospital staff, first responders, and other caretakers. And unfortunately, the virus isn’t going away anytime soon. With cases spiking again around the globe, wearing a mask is more vital than ever.
Despite the fear and uncertainty, many people are coming together to make face masks for those most at risk. And they’re getting creative with the materials they’re using. For example, a police department in Pennsylvania has started making face masks out of Crown Royal bags. And Bee’s Wrap, a company that typically makes reusable wax food coverings, is donating materials to local needleworkers to use for the masks they plan to donate in the community.
If you’re not feeling crafty enough to make a homemade face mask, you can purchase one on Etsy. Sellers around the world are frantically making homemade face masks to sell, and most prices are fairly reasonable.