Health & Home

Ilana’s Guide to wearing masks: part 1

April 4, 2020

Welcome to Ilana’s Guide to Wearing Masks: an utterly non-exhaustive list of tips for life right now.

[This post has been adapted from something I shared on my personal Facebook page]

The CDC is now recommending that the general public wear non-medical masks when in public, though it is not mandatory at this time. Right now is a scramble, but this guideline may be in place for the foreseeable future.

Image of Ilana, a white woman with her hair in a kerchief, seated at a sewing machineDisclaimer: I am not a healthcare professional nor even a professional seamstress. I’m just your friendly neighborhood mom who has made and sent out almost 200 masks, so I’ve spent a fair amount of time researching and thinking about all this, and I thought I’d compile some of it for those of you who haven’t spent as much time on the topic.

1. When do I wear a mask?

When you (a healthy person, if you’re sick stay home) have to be in public in a place where you can’t reliably practice social distancing.

You don’t need a mask in your yard or to go for a walk, nor if you go to a park (assuming they’re open near you) as long as you can maintain a distance from other humans. Also, don’t touch playground equipment or other shared items. Getting outside is safe and healthy, just use sense. And no, you don’t need to wear a mask when enclosed in your car (in fact, if it isn’t a great fit it can even be distracting or dangerous, and if you wear glasses the mask may cause them to fog).

2. What is a non-medical mask?

A face covering that does not include surgical masks or N95 respirators. This can mean disposable paper masks, reusable fabric masks, and makeshift masks.

3. How effective is this?

I’ve read that a double layer reusable mask is about 50% effective at filtering particles (aka keeping other people’s gunk off you). The bigger thing is that asymptomatic or not-yet-symptomatic people can carry and spread the virus, so there’s a lot of value in using these masks to keep your gunk to yourself. Also, if you can keep from adjusting it when you’re out, it helps remind you not to touch your face.

Be sure to put them on with clean hands, remove carefully, and be mindful of where “dirty” masks are placed so as to avoid contamination.

4. Can I make a mask?

You sure can. If you can sew, there are countless free patterns available for simple reusable fabric masks (some links below, there are many other styles). Cotton and flannel are good choices, and I’ve seen some that use a stretch jersey, like t-shirt material. Then you’ll need elastic, hair bands, ribbons, or some other material to affix it to your head. Some people are recommending a layer of interfacing in the center, and some styles include a pocket for a makeshift filter. Something is better than nothing, so don’t worry about perfection.

If you can, use different fabrics for the outer and the lining, so if must take your mask off and put it back on for whatever reason, you know which side was against your face and you put it back on the right way.

5. Okay but I can’t sew, what do I do?

Do you have a bandana and two hair bands? Then you’re set. Fold the bandana into a rectangle tall enough to cover mouth and nose. Lay it on a table and slide the bands on. Then fold each end inwards towards the center, “trapping” the hair bands. Put it on carefully, one ear at a time, and the tension should hold it in place (link to a tutorial below). No fabric? Use paper towel or large napkin if you must.

Also, a bandana or other makeshift mask will serve the purpose, but please read on to #6.

6. Can I just use a scarf?

Yes, but – and this is important – you must wash it after every use when you’re around other people or you risk contaminating yourself, and it has to stay in place. Read that again, please. Anything you wear has to be washed between uses and it must stay in place on its own. Anything you need to adjust frequently when you’re out is not serving it’s intended purpose, and introducing gunk from your hands into your face space.

If you do something else clever, like pull a turtleneck, cowl neck, or sweatshirt over your face, take that garment off when you get home and wash it. Do not continue wearing it.

7. Can I buy a mask?

If you can find them, it’s not a bad idea to have 1-2 per person so you have backup, especially as we don’t know how long this will be necessary. Small businesses/independent seamstresses are a good place to start. Check places like Etsy for sellers who are making and shipping. I say this for two reasons. First, many small businesses (and people, period) are struggling to stay afloat and this little online shop may be that household’s only source of income right now. And second, the maker prepares your fabric, sews your mask, and ships it; you don’t have to wonder where the factory is, who’s handling it in the warehouse, etc. It streamlines the process.

Also, wash your mask when it arrives. I’m sure the fabric has been pre-washed and shrunk, but it’s touched the sewing machine, table, packaging, and of course, the maker’s hands.

8. Once I have a mask, am I safe?

I wouldn’t say safe, but maybe safer. Remember, this is largely for the good of those around you (that “keeping your gunk to yourself” thing).

Continue to social distance. When you can, really, stay home. Continue washing those hands and washing them well. Do everything you’ve been doing.

Wash your mask regularly – and be mindful where you put it once it’s used so you don’t contaminate things. Keep the proper side against your skin. If your mask feels damp or gunky, take it off and swap to another; if you have to be out for an extended period, it’s good to have a spare as backup.

9) Do my kids need a mask?

It may be prudent to have masks on hand for many months, so maybe. For now, best practice is to not take your kids out in public if it can be avoided. If you can, run to the store by yourself. Don’t go out just to get out.

I want to stress a few things on this topic:

  • kids are not great about not touching their faces, so if they’re going to be adjusting the mask or playing with it, it’s much less effective.
  • masks are not necessary for sitting in your car. Please do not put anything with elastic/ties on your child and strap them in their car seat. It’s unnecessary and can be dangerous.
  • especially for babies and toddlers, the odds of them keeping a face covering on in a safe and effective manner is slim. If at all possible, just keep them away from people.
  • this isn’t going to “just go away”. When we reach a point that we can venture out in public semi-regularly again, continue to make good choices. Choose small group activities, or a walk in the park over a crowded museum or other activity. We don’t know how this will linger, and there’s expectations of a second spike. Don’t take risks you don’t have to take.

I hope this has been helpful. Again, this isn’t expert advice, this is what I’ve been gathering. I will edit if and when info/recommendations change.

Also, these recommendations are for the general public. If you are immunocompromised, have respiratory or other issues, please do your best with what you and your doctor have discussed. Some people have always had use for a mask. Some can’t wear them. Don’t make assumptions.

Use sense. Stay safe. Be patient. We may be apart, but we’ll get through this together.

Edit 1: having been out in public for the first time in an eternity, I can say…carry sanitizer, so your hands can be as clean as possible when putting on and taking off your mask. Try on your reusable mask before you go out to make sure it fits and will stay in place. And if you have cartilage piercings, be careful taking your mask off! I’m not finding speaking in a mask particularly comfortable, as it wants to move as the chin moves. I’m also generally a low talker and have to keep in mind that my speech is muffled behind the mask and adjust accordingly.

Edit 2: because I’m thinking about it, clean any jewelry you wear out regularly, and if your hair falls in your face like mine does, realize that any germs that wind up in that hair winds up on your face (and pushing your hair back with dirty hands contaminates your face). Consider hats, kerchiefs, headbands, etc to keep hair off your face when you just can’t avoid being in public.

Mask patterns:



Some simple no-sew mask options:

The recommendation itself:

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