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Tips for making a safer face mask image

Looking to make a DIY face mask? Here are a few MADE SAFE tips for choosing safer materials to help guide the way.


At-A-Glance

Things to avoid:

  • Some fabrics may have undergone chemical treatments with PFAS. To help avoid PFAS, steer clear of using material labeled as “stain resistant,” “wrinkle-free,” or that is marketed as water-resistant or waterproof. This can include clothing, upholstery fabric, and outdoor gear.
  • Material that has been treated with flame retardants. Fabric used for upholstery, baby’s pajamas, and other fabrics can be treated with flame retardants.
  • For washing your mask, choose a nontoxic detergent instead of a conventional detergent, and always be sure to wash any brand new fabric before use.
  • Materials labeled as “antibacterial” or antimicrobial” as these can contain silver nanoparticles, triclosan, or other potentially harmful substances.

What to look for:

  • The CDC recommends high-quality, high thread count cotton for DIY masks. This recommendation was based on the goal of finding the right balance between materials that form well to the face, are effective, and yet still breathable.

Making your own mask?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has recommended and provided instructions for making face coverings out of either T-shirts or bandanas to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Though they typically do not provide the level of protection that an N95 or medical mask can, there is evidence that even a simple covering may still help reduce infection risk. Wearing a mask can help protect against the transmission of the virus, even among those who may be carrying the virus yet feel fine.

For those wanting to make a mask at home, there is ample information out there to get you started DIY-ing. While “how-to’s” and instructional videos abound, it can be difficult to find information about what materials are superior to others from a toxicity standpoint. Though there is evidence validating the CDC’s recommendations that any face mask is better than none, not all mask materials are necessarily the same.

If you want to go to the next level and find a mask that won’t carry any toxic substances or environmental issues, read on for MADE SAFE tips on what to look for and what to be wary of when preparing to make a mask.


Things to watch out for:

When considering materials for the face mask, try to avoid using materials that may expose you to harmful chemicals or irritants such as:

PFAS: Try to steer clear of using clothing that is labeled as “stain resistant,” “easy care,” “wrinkle-free,” or other similar terms. These phrases are typically warning signs that the fabric (often found in furniture fabric, curtains, and dress shirts) has undergone chemical treatments that may contain  PFAS. PFAS can also be found in fabrics that are water-resistant or waterproof. PFAS have been linked to endocrine disruption and cancer.

Flame retardants: Some clothing items (such as children’s pajamas), products containing polyurethane foam (in case you’re looking to use old upholstery fabric), and children’s bedding have flame retardants lurking in them. Before you consider repurposing any of these fabric materials, investigate to ensure they have not been treated with these chemicals. It’s best to try and avoid flame retardants as they have been linked to multiple concerns including fertility issues, thyroid dysfunction, and even lower IQ.

Fabrics recently washed with conventional detergents: Keeping a face mask clean is key, but because it is being worn directly on the face (and breathed through), it is important to be mindful of the detergents with which the mask is cleaned. Cloth face masks can be cleaned and sterilized through proper washing in a washing machine. Use nontoxic laundry detergents to wash your face mask in order to avoid irritating ingredients commonly found in conventional detergents such as 1,4-dioxane and undisclosed fragrance formulas, which can irritate the skin and carry other risks with long-time repeated exposure.

Materials labeled as “antimicrobial” or “antibacterial”: These materials can contain silver nanoparticles, triclosan, or other chemical treatments. Because of their antifungal and antibacterial properties, silver nanoparticles can be found in “antimicrobial” textiles. However, despite nanoparticles becoming increasingly common across industries, they have not been properly assessed for human or environmental health effects, nor are they adequately regulated. Of the various types of nanomaterials, nanosilver is among the most studied. Silver nanoparticles have been linked to cell toxicity and toxicity to aquatic life. Antimicrobial textiles can be also impregnated with triclosan, a chemical associated with endocrine disruption, breast cancer, bacterial resistance, bioaccumulation, and toxicity to aquatic life. While there are other chemicals used to make textiles antimicrobial, silver and triclosan are among the most prevalent.

Choosing the right materials.

A simple face covering like the ones recommended by the CDC can help block the outgoing germs from the mouth of a sick person, but scientists are exploring what materials may provide the most protection for the wearer from incoming germs. The goal is to find the right balance between materials that form well to the face and are effective yet still breathable. The resulting recommendations from these tests were to utilize high-quality, high thread count cotton for making masks. Generally speaking, they found that the tighter and sturdier the weave, the more effective the fabric.

When selecting your fabric, if it’s brand new we suggest washing it at least once, with a nontoxic detergent, before wearing. This will help to get rid of any residual chemicals (potential) residues, just as you would wash a new article of clothing.

Some are experimenting with other avenues of increasing the protection of the mask by putting an added layer for filtration in your mask. In order to do this they have been designating a special pocket in their homemade masks for additional filtration. Since much of this information is developing “real time,” it can be difficult to find authoritative information regarding the validity and reliability of these methods.

If you are interested in exploring different means of additional protection, beware of using materials such as HEPA filters (or similar materials) which may shed harmful fibers that could be inhaled. Companies such as 3M and Shop-Vac have issued warnings discouraging the use of their HEPA vacuum and purifier filters for use in face masks because, although they have been tested for safety when being used as intended, they have not been tested for safety for use within a personal face mask. Most HEPA filters contain microscopic glass fibers which could potentially shed from the filter and damage the lungs if inhaled.

Other options that have been explored for added filtration include coffee filters, paper towels, or even additional layers of fabric. However, one 2013 study designed to test the efficacy of face masks against viruses such as influenza found that adding extra layers of fabric to a mask can greatly reduce breathability while not adding much protection. At this point in time there is not enough information either way so the jury is still out on whether or not an extra layer is effective against Coronavirus.

If you’d like to add an extra layer of protection to your face mask, do your research beforehand, and once you find a material that you are comfortable with using, be sure that there is a layer of cotton (or other safe material) on either side of the filter.

Armed with this information, we hope you can make or select the right mask for you and your loved ones.


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