And should we all be wearing one to prevent the spread of coronavirus?

Homemade Masks
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Between its rapid spread and mixed information about how to protect yourself, coronavirus has proven to be anything but easy to pin down. One of the biggest questions surrounding COVID-19 is the necessity of wearing a face mask.

Initially, healthcare experts said wearing a mask was not necessary since wearing one would not help prevent a healthy person from contracting the virus. Instead, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended masks be reserved for healthcare workers and people who already had the virus to avoid spreading it to others.

But, on Thursday the White House said it expected the CDC would reverse those guidelines, instead advising all Americans to wear a mask or cloth face-covering in public. This is in response to mounting evidence that “infected people without symptoms can spread the virus,” according to an internal memo between the White House and CDC obtained by The Washington Post.

“In light of these new data, along with evidence of widespread transmission in communities across the country, CDC recommends the community use of cloth masks as an additional public health measure people can take to prevent the spread of virus to those around them,” the new guidance notes.

Still confused? You’re not alone, which is why we tapped an expert to help clarify why the face mask conversation has been a bit murky, as well as how to make a DIY face mask to help keep you safe from coronavirus.

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So, Should I Wear a Mask or Not?

Simply put, yes. That’s because anyone can be an asymptomatic carrier, says Nate Favini, M.D., the medical lead of Forward, a preventive primary care practice.

“For the general public, a common misconception about masks is that you are wearing them to protect yourself, when really you are wearing them to protect others from your respiratory droplets,” Dr. Favini says. “During a typical flu season, wearing a mask is a good idea when you are sick so you don’t spread your infection to other people.”

But COVID-19 brings with it a unique set of rules, he points out, namely the degree to which asymptomatic carriers may be spreading the virus.

“That’s the reason why we’re seeing a shift in recommendations toward having asymptomatic people wear masks as well, since it will contain your respiratory droplets and reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 to others,” Dr. Favini says.

So, the shift is the result of the fact that COVID-19 carriers might not be showing symptoms and going out in public mask-free, therefore unknowingly spreading the virus. Think of them as silent carriers.

“There is no harm in wearing a mask, as long as it is homemade, and not a medical mask, which should be reserved for healthcare professionals,” he says.

It’s important to note, however, that masks are only one measure against thwarting the spread of coronavirus, Dr. Favini says. Other best practices, like social distancing, proper hand washing, and avoiding non-essential public outings should also be implemented.

OK, What Counts As a Good Mask?

The role of a DIY mask is simple, Dr. Favini says: “It can be anything that covers the nose and the mouth, since this is where respiratory droplets enter and exit.”

In terms of the best materials to use for a face mask filter, consider a 2013 study out of Cambridge University where researchers tested homemade masks against the flu. The results found that — next to a surgical mask, of course — a vacuum cleaner bag, dish towel, cotton t-shirt, antimicrobial pillowcase, and linen fabric were the top choice materials (in that order). The first two, however, can make it difficult to breathe, according to a report from Stanford Medicine and, therefore, a pillowcase or cotton t-shirt will be your best bet.

FYI, the World Health Organization (WHO) also notes that masks should only be put on after you have cleaned your hands — and to avoid touching your face after the mask is in place.

How to DIY Your Own Mask

The good news is that when it comes to a DIY face mask, there are plenty of how-to guides that are being shared online.

The New York Times released a tutorial for making a mask with a needle and thread, cotton fabric, and shoelaces. If you’re handy with a sewing machine, then you can try this tutorial from JoAnn Fabrics (complete with a printable PDF mask cutout) or the New York Sewing Center’s mask-making video.

If you want to skip anything that involves dredging up your best skills from home economics class, then there are also no-sew options available, like this step-by-step tutorial Colin Hanks shared on Instagram. All you need is a piece of fabric (e.g. kerchief, scarf, t-shirt, pillowcase) that is roughly 21x21 inches, and two hair ties, the actor noted. Hanks said he had “been looking around online” for how to make a mask with a bandana when he stumbled upon this “pretty easy” method.

You can also get crafty by using the cup of a bra and stapling, gluing, or sewing shoe strings or elastic to either side of the mask to fit it to the head. (Yes, there’s a video for that.)

The bottom line: In the event you’re an asymptomatic carrier, it won't hurt to make your own mask for trips to the grocery store, or other essential outings. This will help to slow the spread of coronavirus via people who are silent carriers.

The coronavirus pandemic is unfolding in real time, and guidelines change by the minute. We promise to give you the latest information at time of publishing, but please refer to the CDC and WHO for updates.