Google has reported that “where to buy a face mask” is the highest searched question ever in Google’s history.

Image of an N95 mask on a red background.
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What are the differences between N95, surgical and homemade masks? 

Surgical and N95 masks should be saved or donated to healthcare workers on the frontlines. The limited supply of gowns, gloves and N95s are essential for those workers who are the most at risk. Cloth masks, for civilians, can be a makeshift way to protect and cover your face while maintaining social distance. Dr. Howard Forman, a professor of management, public health, economics and radiology at Yale University told CNBC that “These are not intended to prevent you from getting the virus, they are intended to prevent other people from getting the virus from you.” 

DIY face masks don’t filter particles as well as N95 masks, but they can potentially filter up to 50% of COVID-19 sized particles. The COVID-19 virus is smaller than 0.3 microns (approximately 0.1 microns), so the filters are imperative

So, what’s the exact difference? Surgical masks are loose-fitting, fluid-resistant and protect people from large droplets, splashes or sprays. Surgical masks do not provide protection against small particles. An N95 respirator mask is a tight-fitting protection from large droplets and filters out 95% of small particles. Surgical masks should be discarded after use. According to MedPage Today, N95 masks can be decontaminated and reused 2-3 times.

A homemade mask can be made from a T-shirt, old clothing, sweatshirts, scarves or pieces of cloth, and can filter 10 to 60 percent of particles. Homemade masks may not be as effective as surgical or N95 masks, but it's important to cover your face as well as you can.

How to make your own mask

First and foremost, your mask should cover your nose, mouth and under the chin to ensure safety. It should also fit snugly, so it’s best to purchase elastic for the ears. While the sides of the mask should fit close to your face, you should still be able to breathe normally. 

Materials you’ll need for making your own mask include:

  • Cotton fabric (like a T-shirt, quilting fabric, or pillowcases)
  • Elastic (rubber bands, hair ties, or shoelaces work)
  • A filter
  • Sewing materials and a sewing pattern

Make sure to properly wash your mask before reusing (never double wear your mask). 

Taking some time to create your own mask can be a stress-reliever during this precarious and mentally exhausting time. If you don’t have access to a sewing machine or don’t have enough materials, the CDC says that making an easier face covering with a scarf or bandana is sufficient. 

Here are some great sources to check out if you’re trying to make your own mask: 

  •, a platform based in Ireland, was early to the game with their PDF pattern that popped up within a week of shelter-in-place in the U.S.
  • INNOVA Crafts is a YouTube channel that shows how to make a mask in two minutes. 
  • This easy no-sew mask by YouTuber Jan Howell shows viewers how to make an old T-shirt into a wearable face cover. 
  • For those with no sewing machine, a bandana and two rubber bands can turn into this DIY mask in a few minutes. 
  • Craft Passion’s blog features a pattern for those of you looking to add in a nose wire (especially important for glasses wearers). 

Many patterns include a pocket for a filter that can be made from a plethora of materials. Coffee filters, flannel, paper tea towels, Swiffer dry sheets and vacuum bags have all been tested for how efficient they filter products. As people hit their sewing machines, mask-making patterns are infiltrating the blogosphere and becoming a more attainable and accessible product to make within the confines of your home.

A recent study at Northeastern University found that adding a layer of nylon to the outside of your mask can add an extra layer of protection and may boost it to the same level as a 3M surgical mask, which is not as protective as an N95 respirator but protects against large droplets.

Infographic on how to wear and remove a face mask.
Infographic on how to wear and remove a face mask.

How to safely wear a mask

Before you put on your mask, make sure you clean your hands with soap and water. Check that your mask doesn’t have any holes or rips. If your mask has ear loops, hold it by the loops and place over your ears. If it's made with ties or ribbons, bring your mask to your face and tie the ribbons on the crown of your head. Make sure the mask is over your nose and chin. 

When removing the mask, once again, wash your hands with soap and water. Try to avoid touching the front of the mask because this is the most contaminated area. Remove the mask with the loops or the ties on your head. Immediately wash the mask, as it could have COVID-19 particles on the outside. Wash your hands once again. 

No matter what type of mask you’re wearing, the World Health Organization says that folks should wash their hands before putting the mask on. A recent study found that the virus can survive for up to seven days on the outside of the mask, so washing the mask and your hands is a must. Dr. Daniel Griffin, an infectious diseases expert at Columbia University, told NPR that people should wash their masks as often as you wash your underwear. That’s why it’s important to make several masks so you can change them out. 

Remember, these homemade masks aren’t a substitute for social distancing, they simply enhance safety. They aren’t a cure-all solution by any means, as we still have so much to learn about the virus. But until we have a healthy supply of masks, homemade substitutes can serve as a temporary shield of protection.