Early on, as the novel coronavirus was just starting to creep across the U.S., the advice on masks was to reserve them for health care workers. But as COVID-19 has tightened its grip, some experts advise that wearing masks in public combined with continued social distancing are the best ways to slow the spread of the disease.

The mask isn't meant to protect you so much, but to protect other people in case you're infected.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have given conflicting advice about wearing masks during the pandemic. In early April, the CDC recommended people wear cloth face coverings out in public. Days later, the WHO announced there's no evidence that wearing a mask will prevent healthy people from getting COVID-19.

WHO's guidance is that people who are sick and those in health care should wear masks. But the concern is that "the use of medical masks in the community may create a false sense of security, with neglect of other essential measures." People who wear a mask might think they don't have to practice social distancing or wash their hands so much or they may touch their face under the mask, which defeats the purpose.

But the CDC suggests everyone wear a face covering when out in public, so be smart when you do it. We've gathered advice, tips and directions from health organizations, universities and crafty people to help make your life with a mask easier.

What kind of mask?

N95 respirator mask The CDC asks that N95 respirator masks be reserved for health care workers and first responders who need the most protection. (Photo: michael_swan [CC BY-ND 2.0]/Flickr)

Leave the N95 respirator masks and surgical masks for health care workers. They're the ones on the front lines who have the greatest risk of coming into contact with the virus and who need the strongest protection.

"Those are critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for healthcare workers and other medical first responders," according to CDC guidelines.

These protective masks are in such short supply that often health care workers are being asked to reuse their respirators. They are wearing washable cloth masks on top of them to prolong their use.

If you aren't a medical worker and have N95 or surgical masks, consider donating them to a hospital.

Making a mask if you sew

Directions from the CDC on how to sew a face covering. Directions from the CDC on how to sew a face covering. (Photo: CDC)

Depending on your level of craftiness, there are loads of patterns and videos for DIY masks. The CDC offers the step-by-step design above. You can also find detailed designs with pleats to simple versions you can sew by hand. If you don't already have elastic (many stores are sold out), you can use hair bands, rubber bands or make ties to hold your mask in place.

Making a mask if you don't sew

Even if you don't own a needle and thread, you can whip up a face mask with items you have around the house. You can make the mask above using a bandanna or similarly sized piece of fabric plus some rubber bands or elastic hair ties.

There's also a ridiculously easy no-sew version made from a clean cotton sock. Here's another popular Facebook video showing how to make a mask with a sock and a pair of scissors. You can add a tissue or paper towel as a filter.

Choosing the best material

Shown here are the spray that escapes through three different pillowcase. You can see how the spray escapes through three different pillowcases. At the bottom are magnified photos of the fabrics' weaves. The middle and right are more tightly woven so less spray escapes. (Photo: Georgia Institute of Technology)

If you've been reading stories about mask making, you've likely seen conflicting reports about what kind of fabric to use. The CDC suggests no-sew options using a T-shirt or bandanna. Yet, other reports suggest T-shirt and bandanna fabric aren't thick enough for keeping out virus germs. Other experts suggest using tightly woven cotton fabrics like pillowcases or sheets.

Most mask designs include two layers of fabric. Some suggest tucking a coffee filter, tissue or paper towel in between them. (Note, however, that unless those items can be removed, the mask can't be successfully washed.)

The Georgia Institute of Technology suggests a simple test using a spray bottle and a mirror to check a fabric's suitability for a mask. See the results in the photo above.

  • Fill a clean spray bottle with tap water. Set to the "spray" setting, not "stream."
  • Hold fabric 3 to 4 inches from a mirror.
  • Spray through one layer of the fabric. (Don't let the fabric touch the mirror due to force of the spray.)
  • If mirror is wet from the spray, the material isn't suitable for a mask. If it's mostly dry with only a few small drops, it's a good choice.

In Georgia Tech's studies, researchers found some of the best fabrics were tightly woven, knitted or non-woven fabrics including cotton or polyester/cotton blend T-shirts, high thread-count pillowcases and matte reusable shopping bags (as an outer shell for cloth mask). Inferior fabrics included felt, fleece, batting, loosely knitted (like in a light sweater) and shiny, reusable shopping bags.

A new study published in ACS Nano emphasized and expanded on that approach, finding that a combination of cotton with natural silk or chiffon is the most effective combination for a homemade mask.

Using aerosol studies, which follow the path of the tiniest respiratory droplets believed to spread the virus, researchers at University of Chicago looked at common fabrics or combinations of fabrics. They used an aerosol mixing chamber and a fan to mimic a person's respiration rate, and they found that one layer of a tightly woven cotton sheet combined with two layers of chiffon — a sheer fabric often used in prom dresses and evening wear — filtered out the most aerosol particles (80–99%, depending on particle size), with performance close to that of an N95 mask material, according to a press release.

Using the combination approach, they got similar results with the tightly woven cotton with natural silk or flannel or a cotton quilt with cotton-polyester batting. But they cautioned that one of the biggest variables was fit. Even a 1% gap reduced the filtering efficiency of all masks by half or more.

Buying a mask or getting one from a friend

Volunteers make masks to donate to health care workers, family and friends in South Orange, New Jersey. Volunteers make masks to donate to health care workers, family and friends in South Orange, New Jersey. (Photo: Elsa/Getty Images)

If you don't want to attempt making a mask, maybe you have a handy friend or family member who will make one for you in exchange for a few rolls of toilet paper. There are also loads of crafters selling them in communities and online. You've no doubt seen them in neighborhood social media groups on Facebook and Nextdoor. A recent search for "face masks" on Etsy found more than 107,000 results, ranging from about $5 to $20 each. Some only have one layer of fabric and others don't specify the type of fabric. Just be sure to wash the masks before you wear them.

When to wear your mask

The CDC recommends wearing a face mask when you have to go out in public, like to the grocery store or pharmacy. It's especially important when it's hard to practice social distancing and critical in "areas of significant community-based transmission."

Face coverings shouldn't be worn by children under 2, anyone who has breathing issues or anyone who is incapacitated and would be unable to remove the mask without help.

How to wear your mask

woman wearing a face mask A face mask should cover your mouth and nose and fit snugly against the sides of your face. (Photo: kovop58/Shutterstock)

Wearing a mask can be disconcerting. It can be hot and stifling and make your glasses steam up if you wear them. Because a mask can be so uncomfortable, it can be tempting to adjust it. But the rule is that once you put it on, don't touch it until you're safely back home. Then don't touch your eyes, nose or mouth when removing it. Wash your hands as soon as you take it off.

Be sure that it covers your nose and your mouth and fits snugly but comfortably against the sides of your face. You should be able to breathe easily when wearing it.

How to take care of your mask

The CDC suggests machine washing your face mask regularly, depending on how often you use it.

The Cleveland Clinic takes things a step further, saying it should be washed after each use.

"If you can't wash them right away, store them in a plastic bag or laundry basket," says Aaron Hamilton, M.D. "Hand wash or wash on a gentle cycle using hot, soapy water. Then, dry them on high heat."

If the mask is damaged or really dirty, throw it away and make a new one.

Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was first published in April 2020.

Mary Jo DiLonardo covers a wide range of topics focused on nature, health, science and anything that helps make the world a better place.

Everything you need to know about face masks
We answer all your questions about coronavirus face masks, from how to make one to who needs to wear one and what each kind of mask does.