Cloth Face Masks

In order to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, the CDC now recommends everyone wear non-medical face masks in public. This is especially important in settings where social distancing can be difficult, like grocery stores, pharmacies, and on subways and buses (which are still being used on a daily basis by essential workers). According to Dr. Sten Vermund, an infectious-disease epidemiologist and dean of the Yale School of Public Health who recently published a study on the subject, “many types of masks can essentially block droplet transmission. If you aerosolized the virus it might seep through a lot of masks, but when most people cough, the aerosol released is a small volume and the droplet is a large volume. So, if you block the droplets, you may substantially reduce exposure.” 

Though nonmedical masks are most effective when worn by an infected person, new studies out of China and South Korea show that somewhere between 25 to 50 percent of infectious people are either pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic. “So if we have widespread, or near universal mask use, then those people are limiting their spread to others,” Verbund says. He warns, however, that face masks are not a silver bullet, and only work when combined with other public-health measures, including washing your handsremaining at home as much as possible, and staying at least six feet away from others when you have to go outside. 

But what kind of face masks do the best job? And if you’re looking to order some, where can you buy them right now? We asked Vermund and Dr. Scott Segal, chairman of anesthesiology at Wake Forest Baptist Health, for insight into those questions and a few others. 

Because there is a shortage, and because they are the ones most at risk, health-care workers like doctors and nurses should be the only group of people wearing N95 masks. That leaves fabric masks and hobby masks, often used for painting or to block out dust, to the rest of us. Segal, who recently conducted a study of the efficacy of different materials used for homemade masks, says that you want thick, tightly woven cotton like the kinds used for quilting or batik. They are better at filtering small particles close to the size of a virus (0.3 to 0.5 microns). “Our general guidance is to do a quick light test,” Segal says. If you can see light passing through the material, when you hold it up to a bright light or the sun, it’s less likely to be a good filter. 

Both Segal and Vermund note that your mask should be both comfortable and fit tightly to your face, but it obviously should not be so tight or so thick as to impede your breathing. And if you’ve been growing a quarantine beard, you may want to rethink it. According to Vermund, facial hair can get in the way of how well your mask fits and thus how well it works. Vermund, who recently had to trim his facial hair very short to make sure his mask was fitting tightly against his face, says, “If I put the mask over my beard and it was hugging my facial hair not my skin, then there would be big gaps that particles could move through.” 

So trim those beards (if you have them) and check out our list below to find the right mask for you, whether you’re waiting in line at Trader Joe’s, walking your dog around the block, or continuing to go into a job that has been deemed essential. (And if that last one is you, thank you!) 

The best fabric masks to buy online 

There are tons of tutorials online for making your own mask at home. In a pinch you can do it with a pair of hair ties and a bandana. But if you don’t feel like making your own, don’t worry. A ton of fashion brands have chosen to pivot from manufacturing clothing to manufacturing face masks. Many of them are donating one mask for every one they sell, so buying a few for yourself also helps someone in need. Often these masks feature a pocket for an additional filter. Dr. Laszlo Mechtler, Professor of Neurology and Neuro-Oncology at SUNY Buffalo tells us that a coffee filter, a section of a non-fiberglass HEPA vacuum bag, a swatch of flannel, or any other material that passes the light test but does not restrict your breathing would make a viable added filter. Whatever mask you select, our experts stress the importance of removing them the right way. “Try to handle it by the ties or ear loops, not the fabric front,” Segal says. “Wash your hands after taking it off, and then either hang the mask up to dry, wash it, or do as we do in the hospital, put it in a paper bag (which allows drying) until the next use.” 

Editors’ note: Given that these masks are extremely in-demand and made by super-small teams (sometimes just one person), stock is constantly fluctuating. We’ll be updating this post every day with new places to buy, so if you don’t see an option you like, check in later for more.