While social distancing is still currently our best bet for fighting the spread of the novel coronavirus, Coloradans—along with everyone else around the nation—are now being encouraged to wear face masks whenever they leave their homes. But adopting mask culture is still fairly new territory for most Americans, and we know this makes for a lot of questions. We spoke to the experts to answer reader questions about how to properly make and wear face masks—and help get them to others who need them, too.

Why should people wear masks, even if they aren’t sick? Are homemade masks really effective?
If you’re stepping out in public on an essential outing, the safety of yourself and others is a two-way street. This is where masks come into play. We know that the coronavirus is able to spread through direct or surface contact with respiratory droplets from an infected person sneezing, coughing, or eating—so hopefully it goes without saying that if you’re sick, you should wear a mask to protect others from the spread of your droplets. But John Zhai, a professor of building systems engineering at the University of Colorado and expert on air quality and ventilation, stresses the importance of wearing a mask even if you’re healthy. It’s possible for people to carry the virus but show no symptoms—so if someone who is asymptomatic assumes they’re fine and goes out in public without a mask, you can be glad you at least had yours on.

Zhai also says that having several layers and a proper fit are the two most essential factors to making sure you have an efficient mask. So if you’re just tying a loose scarf around your face? “That probably won’t work that well because you have a big gap under your face,” Zhai warns. What about my neck gaiter that’s not getting any use on the slopes right now, you might ask? Well, the type of material will probably be the determining factor—don’t worry, we’re getting to that.

Are there specific materials that are better to use than others if I’m making my own masks?
Cotton will get the job done just fine according to Zhai—and you should try to avoid any smooth or silky fabrics. “A lot of evidence shows that smooth materials will have a bacteria or virus on it for a longer time,” he says. Scarves—and unfortunately bandanas, too—have been scoring the lowest on materials tests for blocking particles, so if you’re able to scavenge or spring for other options, do it. If bandana or scarf material is all that you have available, there are easy, no-sew tutorials for bandana masks with coffee filters for extra protection.

Jaime Jennings, co-owner of Denver-based Fancy Tiger Crafts, suggests cotton fabric with a pretty tight weave (hint: anything with a high thread count) like quilting cotton. “You can also hold a woven fabric up to light to compare different fabrics that you might have available to see which ones let in more light,” Jennings says. “If you can see holes in the weave of the fabric, then that’s not going to be tight enough.”

Jennings and her co-owner, Amber Corcoran, have also been encouraging people to use interfacing if possible—the common sewing material used for extra backing—to act as an inner filter. “The combination of the woven fabrics with non-woven interfacing makes for a really good barrier,” Jennings says. The material has been in high demand though, so only worry about it if you already have some lying around or can easily get your hands on it; just be sure to avoid the kinds of interfacing with fusible glue backing.

What’s most important is simply making sure you have several layers of fabric to filter out droplets. Jennings suggests similar hacks seen all over the internet, such as cutting up old t-shirts to use for parts of your mask (just make sure to wash that dingy old shirt first!). “We’re really just trying to get people to try to find things in their home or that they might have already to make masks with because some of the materials are just really hard to get right now.”

How do I make a mask? What if I don’t have a sewing machine?
Fancy Tiger Crafts has compiled a one-stop shop for everything you need to know about sewing masks at home, including sewing patterns, kits, tutorials, and helpful tips for slightly more advanced techniques—like sewing your own straps with bias tape. The Colorado Mask Project also has plenty of resources to find the homemade mask solution that work best for your circumstances, including tutorials that don’t require any sewing. “Find something that’s achievable for your skill level,” Jennings suggests. “It needs to be super accessible for everybody. You don’t need to go buy new stuff—you probably have something at home that will work.”

If you’re experienced with sewing and want to lend a helping hand to healthcare workers, many hospitals are accepting homemade masks for patients and staff who aren’t directly working with COVID-19 patients or suspected of having the virus. But before you jump in, Jennings suggests researching specific guidelines for the hospital you’re looking to donate to. Save the already swamped hospitals a call and check the database that the University of California Berkeley School of Public Health has compiled on the current mask needs and specific pattern requirements for hospitals across the U.S.

Photo courtesy of Fancy Tiger Crafts

Do I need to disinfect or wash my mask every time I use it?
If you’re using a homemade mask of cotton or jersey material, it’s best to clean it after every use, according to Zhai. “Wash [your mask] every time you come home, because you never know what is on it,” he says.

It’s still important to make sure we’re not keeping medical-grade masks away from the frontline healthcare workers who need them most—but if you already happen to have, say, paper medical masks at your disposal, there are ways to disinfect them as well. First things first, Zhai suggests checking the masks’ labeling to determine whether they’re suggested for one-time or multiple uses. If it’s a single-use mask, Zhai suggests canning it after about four hours. “They’re made out of paper—it will get wet when people breathe,” Zhai says. “Any longer will be difficult because when they get wet, they lose the function to filter the particles.”

If your paper mask can be used more than once, research shows that placing it in the oven at 168 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 30–60 minutes will kill most of the virus. (Obviously inspect it first and remove any additional rubber or plastic pieces beforehand.)

Do I need to wear a mask even just to be outside for a walk or exercise?
Good news! If you’re heading outside for a simple walk or some exercise, you don’t really need to wear a mask. Unless you’re sick yourself, the open space, proper distancing, and fresh air will take care of mitigating any spread. “With good ventilation, we don’t have to worry about it,” Zhai says, stressing that it’s mostly just critical to wear masks in indoor spaces with much less ventilation, like elevators, public transportation, and yes, grocery stores—even if it’s not crowded.

How can we support local efforts to boost the supply of personal and/or medical masks?
Coloradans have been stepping up to try to get masks and other necessary equipment into the hands of those who still need them. Make4Covid is a statewide collective of industry experts and makers pooling resources and skills to get necessary equipment like face masks and face shields to Colorado healthcare professionals. Head to their website if you want to make a donation, or if you have sewing/3D printing capabilities, means to help distribute, equipment design experience, or other applicable skill sets and would like to join the effort. The Colorado Mask Project has plenty of opportunities to either donate materials or money, or assist with making masks yourself. And you can also head to the Denver Mask Task Force to volunteer to sew or deliver masks to other communities still in need of resources, such as homeless shelters and senior-living facilities.


Madi Skahill
Madi Skahill
Madi Skahill is 5280’s former associate digital editor.