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Masks are all over the news right now.
Surgical masks. Dust masks. Respirators. N95 masks. P100 masks.
What’s the difference?
Which is the best mask for virus protection?
And, can you make your own N95 mask?
All of these types of masks are covered below. You’ll learn what the name means, how the masks work, and what they’re effective against.
You’ll also learn how to put them on, take them off (which is arguably more important to do properly!), and even how to make your own!
What Do Face Masks Do?
Face masks are intended to block unpleasantness in the air from getting to, or from, your face.
As humans, we need to breathe, which means that airborne contaminants are easy to catch. This could mean smoke, fumes, or viruses such as COVID-19.
Air masks either function as a filter in front of your face to (hopefully!) catch those contaminants before you breathe them in or physically block everything, in which case there will be an additional filter as well.
Another helpful function of face masks is that they stop you from touching your face.
Germs can hang around on your hands and people absentmindedly touch their faces all the time.
The mucous membranes in your lips and nose are potential viral entrance zones.
Masks help keep you from picking your boogers with that unsanitized finger!
You can sanitize that finger with a homemade hand sanitizer, though!
Which Type of Face Mask Do I Need?
Not all masks are made equal.
There’s a lot of misconception about there about what types of masks will do what, which you should wear, and how helpful masks even are.
Let’s look at the three broad types of masks and see what they’re good at (and what they’re not good for!)
Surgical Mask – Used for Protecting Others
Surgical masks are the most common type of medical mask and are worn around the nose and mouth to catch various ick you might expel out of your face.
The primary purpose of a surgical mask is to protect a patient on an operating table from being contaminated by a surgeon or nurse.
Sneezes, liquid from a cough, even particulates on your breath are all caught by a surgical mask.
Cheaper dust masks are similar to surgical masks in design, though they are intended to minimize the amount of large particles (such as sawdust) from entering your lungs.
But neither mask type forms a seal around the edge of the mask, so they are not intended for pervasive or small particles.
How Does It Work?
Surgical masks, and dust masks, are a filter in front of your face.
They physically catch any liquid expelled from your face (or accidentally squirted onto your face).
Surgical masks can also catch roughly 80% of small particles, though their open sides will still allow some through.
When to Use One
As you can probably guess from how I’ve described these masks, they aren’t great at protecting you from catching an airborne viral infection.
However, any mask is better than no mask.
Even the simplest face covering will catch a number of hostile particles, which might be able to edge the chances in your favor so you don’t catch anything bad.
Also, surgical masks are great at catching any nastiness you might expel.
So, if you think you might have the Coronavirus (or another respiratory disease such as influenza), then wearing a surgical mask will help stop you from infecting other people.
How to Wear a Surgical Face Mask
Surgical masks and dust masks are easy to wear.
The first step is to wash your hands.
If your hands are contaminated, then you’ll contaminate the mask and wearing it will be for naught!
Then, take out the mask and make sure it’s in good location. A mask with holes is worthless.
Find the top part of the mask, which should have a stiff-yet-bendable part, and the outside of the mask.
Medical masks are typically white on the inside and blue on the outside, while dust masks are formed to make it obvious.
These masks can be tied on or have elastic. Those elastic loops can be on the sides of the mask or on the top and bottom.
For masks with side elastic, put the mask against your face so it covers the bottom part of your nose and loop the elastic around your ears.
For tied-on masks, grab the top ties, pull the mask against your face, and tie them around the back of your head and above your ears.
For the top-and-bottom bands, pull the bottom band over your head first then pull the top band so it is above your ears and the bottom band is around the base of your skull.
Now, tighten the top of the mask around your nose by pinching it into place with your forefinger and thumb.
Tie the bottom tie around the base of your skull, if there is one.
Finally, adjust the bottom of the mask so it covers the bottom of your chin.
When taking off a mask, wash your hands first then take it off by touching the elastic/ties. ONLY the ties!
The front may be contaminated.
Dispose of a disposable mask in a biohazard container if possible, or a plastic bag if you don’t have biohazard containers lying around your house.
Then wash your hands again.
If you’re not using a disposable mask, put it directly into the washing machine and wash it on high heat.
Preferably with a detergent containing bleach.
N95 – Used for Protecting Yourself
N95 masks are a big step-up from surgical masks and are actually effective at keeping you safe from catching viruses such as COVID-19.
An N95 mask is designed to block out 95% of particulates in the air, down to 0.3 microns, though they will still filter out smaller particles. Such as viruses.
Any N95 mask will be as effective as any other N95 mask, though the way they fit may be different.
N95 is a rating by NIOSH, the National Institute of Occupation Safety and Health.
Note that the “N” in “N95” signifies that the mask is not oil resistant. They can’t filter out contaminants suspended in oil.
R95 masks are oil-resistant, while P95 masks are oil-proof.
High-quality dust masks can be rated N95, too.
How Does It Work?
N95 masks are similar to surgical masks and work the same way.
However, they are designed to form a seal around more than just the nose, and so are much more effective at catching incoming particles.
This tight seal and tighter fabric inhibits airflow, so better N95 masks will have a check valve that lets you exhale more easily.
“Wait a minute,” you might say. “You said earlier that the coronavirus is smaller than 0.3 microns!”
However, COVID-19 doesn’t move around on its own.
Though the viral particle may be small enough to pass through the mask’s surface, it has to hitch a ride on something bigger that won’t be able to penetrate.
So, 0.3 microns of protection is enough to greatly reduce your risk of catching a respiratory disease.
When to Use One
An N95 mask should be used when you are at risk of contracting a disease such as COVID-19.
N95 masks won’t eliminate all chances of contracting the disease, but they will severely cut down on your chances of becoming infected.
N95 masks are currently needed by healthcare workers around the nation.
If you have any N95 masks, you should probably donate them to your local hospital and stay at home as much as possible.
It’s possible to make your own mask that’s almost as protective as an N95 mask. Or even more protective!
How to Wear an N95 Face Mask
N95 masks are worn similarly to surgical masks.
They will have more areas to bend the mask so it fits your face, so make sure the outside edge conforms to your contours as much as possible.
Other than that, putting on and taking the mask is the same.
Respirator or Gas Mask – Used for Better Protection
N95 masks offer good protection but they aren’t the best available.
These are the best face masks for virus protection, but are the most expensive and least comfortable to wear.
There are both disposable N100 masks and respirators with replaceable filters.
Gas masks also fall into this category, especially CBRN and NBC gas masks!
They also protect your eyes from the Coronavirus…
…and from chemical weapons and radioactive contaminants.
You can make a respirator at home, and even a crude gas mask, but it won’t be at quite the level of a CBRN mask.
How Does It Work?
Disposable N100 and P100 masks are similar to N95 masks with heavier-duty attachment methods and a thicker body.
They are also more difficult to breathe through.
Respirators have a solid body that covers your nose and mouth along with a replaceable filter or two.
Gas masks add a see-through faceplate to protect your eyes as well.
Be wary of using milsurp gas masks, though. Some of the old Russian filters contain asbestos!
When to Use One
Full-face respirators, gas masks, and P100 face masks are overkill for most people.
They are a good choice if you will be in extended contact with COVID-19 patients, though.
Or if a nearby chemical plant explodes.
How to Wear a Respirator or Gas Mask
Respirators are easy to put on.
Put the mask against your mouth and nose so it fits comfortably then tighten or tie the straps so the respirator is not loose.
You should not be able to feel any air leaking when you breathe out.
Gas masks are worn the same way.
Respirators are typically not disposable, so you’ll want to sanitize them properly after you take them off.
Wash your hands before taking off a respirator or gas mask.
After you’ve taken it off, remove any filters and dispose of them in a biohazard container or a plastic bag.
Immerse the mask into a bleach solution. OSHA recommends 1 milliliter of bleach in 1 liter of water at 110 degrees Fahrenheit for two minutes.
Rinse thoroughly. Even more thoroughly!
Oh, and wash your hands while the mask is in the bleach water.
Though, your respirator may come with different instructions.
How to Make Your Own Homemade Mask
How to Make Your Own Medical Face Mask
Surgical-style masks are the easiest ones to DIY.
In a pinch, you can use a bandana or scarf tied tightly around your nose and mouth!
However, it’s also possible to sew a surgical mask for yourself.
If you can, use a vacuum cleaner filter bag.
Failing that, use a dish towel or tea towel.
A cotton-blend t-shirt comes third in the rankings and is still capable of catching a surprising amount of airborne particles down to 0.02 microns in size, which is smaller than Coronavirus at 0.1-0.2 microns.
If you have elastic, then you can make an elastic mask. Otherwise you’ll have to make one you can tie on.
Deaconess, a series of hospitals in Indiana, has some great instructions on how to sew your own surgical masks:
You can double up on thinner fabric, such as from a t-shirt, to make the mask a little more effective.
Don’t double up on thicker cloth, though, such as dish towels. Then it’ll be harder to breathe!
This video may be helpful:
How to Make Your Own N95 Face Mask
It is possible to make your own N95-style mask, provided you have the right filtration materials.
A t-shirt won’t cut it.
You want a home heating, AC, vacuum, or furnace filter that’s rated to at least MPR 2500 or MERV 14. Or better. MPR 2800 is best.
It needs to be able to catch at least 77% of E1 particles, which covers 0.3-micron particles.
This isn’t 95%, which is why you’ll need enough material for two layers. The second layer will catch 77% of what the first layer missed, getting you very close to 95% of 0.3-micron particles caught.
MPR 2800 catches at least 81% each layer, so two layers will catch 96.39% of what you breathe in!
You’ll also need a bendable wire, preferably covered in a soft material.
You can use Gear Ties or make your own with some rubber tubing or foam and some wire that’s thick enough to firmly hold its shape after it’s bent.
You’ll also need elastic, long rubber bands, or fabric, which will be used to attach the mask to your head.
This type of DIY N95 mask uses the ties to hold a shaped wire around your nose and under your jaw, which itself holds the filter against your face.
Start by cutting a strip of the filter material, 6 inches wide.
Pay attention to which direction air is supposed to flow. These filters are designed to filter the air flowing in one direction. You want to keep the filter material so the intended airflow is toward your mouth.
Labeling the intended outside can be helpful.
Then, flatten the folded strips and cut out two 6-inch square.
Now, take that wire, and bend it so it forms a manifold shape around the bridge of your nose down to under your jaw with no gaps.
Attach your elastic, rubber bands, or fabric ties to the wire. One set should go under the nose and one set at the jaw.
Put the two filter squares over each other and into the wire so the intended airflow comes through the wire and into your mouth.
Put it against your face, use whichever attachment method you chose to keep it on your head, and fine-tune the wire so it fits you perfectly.
Test the fit by exhaling.
You shouldn’t be able to feel any air coming out anywhere around the filter.
Finally, trim the filter so it’s not obnoxious, but don’t trim away any portion under the wire!
These DIY masks are only usable once.
Dispose of the filter in a plastic bag after you’re done wearing it, though you can save the wire.
Just make sure to sanitize the wire by immersing it in a solution of 1 milliliter of bleach in 1 liter of hot water for at least two minutes!
Here’s a video of a similar method for making N95 masks:
How to Make Your Own Gas Mask
Yes, it’s possible to make an improvised gas mask!
It won’t be as good as an NBC gas mask, but it’ll protect your eyes as well as your nose and mouth.
You’ll need a 2-liter soda bottle with the label removed.
Clear works best, unless you like seeing everything green or brown.
You’ll also need a filtration medium, such as a dust mask, pieces from an HVAC filter, or even a dish towel.
Finally, you’ll need some duct tape, and perhaps some rubber or closed-cell foam.
Plus a sharp knife. For cutting. I found scissors less helpful.
Make sure the soda bottle is empty and clean.
I know at least one of you will try this with a bottle full of soda otherwise!
Cut off the bottom of the soda bottle.
Then, cut a U shape in the bottle, with the bottom of the U two inches from the bottle cap. The sides need to be just wide enough for your face to fit (they’ll spread when upt on your face).
Put your filtration medium into the bottle at the bottom of the U and tape it in place with enough duct tape to form a seal all the way around.
Use duct tape (a little loose, to form a flap), rubber, or foam to cover the edges of the soda bottle where you cut earlier.
This will protect your skin from the perhaps-sharp plastic and will also help create an airtight seal.
Slit some vertical holes in the plastic next to the covered edges so you can insert and tie off some bands. One set should be near the top and the other four inches lower.
Seal those holes with duct tape.
Finally, poke some holes in the bottle cap.
Put on the improvised gas mask with the cap downward. One band goes over your ear, one below.
Test for fit and function, and poke more air holes into the cap if necessary.
This mask won’t protect you against a nuclear winter, but it should filter out tiny particles!
You can cut an aluminum can in half, poke air holes in the side, fill it with activated charcoal, and duct tape it around the bottle’s opening for filtration against certain chemicals.
The following video is of this same type of improvised gas mask:
What is the Best Face Mask for Virus Protection?
A biological-rated gas mask that covers your eyes, nose, and mouth and has a self-contained air supply is the absolute best face mask for virus protection.
For most people, though, an N95 face mask will produce almost as much protection at far less expense.
It’ll be more comfortable, too, which means you’ll actually wear it!
What is the Best Face Mask for When You’re Sick?
A biological-rated gas mask etc etc.
Again, an N95 face mask will be good enough to catch the virus you exhale.
A surgical mask should work, too, provided nobody sticks their nose into the unsealed sides and breathes deeply.
If you are sick with a respiratory disease then you really should be wearing some sort of mask to catch any virus that catches a ride out of your body in your spittle.
Don’t go maskless if you’re sick and don’t have “the best” mask available.
How Often Should You Use Face Masks?
Honestly, we should be using face masks much more frequently than we do.
Face masks are effective at protecting against sickness, both catching a disease and spreading it to other people.
So, when there’s a contagious disease spreading around your region, you should have something in front of your nose and mouth whenever you’re interacting with people outside your home.
How Long Do Face Masks Last?
Unfortunately, no face mask lasts forever.
Both surgical and N95 face masks have a limited lifespan that maxes out at 8 hours.
The filter material will get more and more clogged with particulates, inhibiting airflow and making the filtration medium less effective.
Replace the mask once you start to notice breathing taking more effort, even if less than 8 hours have passed.
All of these masks are designed to be worn only once then disposed of or sanitized.
Some respirator filters can last even less, with better filters lasting only 90 minutes!
Can You Wear Face Masks with Beards?
Facial hair and a face mask is a bad combination.
A beard will prevent the mask from sealing against your skin properly, rendering even a CBRN gas mask just as effective as a disposable surgical mask.
The best way to fix this problem is to shave off your beard.
There are two other potential solutions, though.
Some people have found success by slathering up the beard with petroleum jelly where it touches the mask, which blocks air from blowing through.
Other people have used multiple layers of duct tape to seal the mask to the face.
If you do try these, then make sure to feel for air escaping the jelly or tape.
Neither of these techniques are guaranteed to work.
There are three very important things to keep in mind when considering face masks for sickness:
Any filter in front of your face is better than no filter in front of your face
The outside of a mask can be contaminated, which will contaminate you if you take off the mask incorrectly
Nobody can guarantee complete effectiveness
With these in mind, you can now make an informed decision about what types of face masks you and your family can wear to protect against COVID-19 or any other outbreak.
Fortunately, you can make an effective face mask at home.
If you have spare material, consider making extra surgical masks and donating them to healthcare facilities in your area.