towel filter and protection factors of between 4.1 and 5.3
for the surgical mask. It was interesting that the study also
found that median protection factors increased over the
3-hour period for those wearing the homemade masks,
decreased for those wearing filtering face piece (FFP2) masks
that lower the wearer’s exposure to airborne particles by a
factor of 10, and showed no consistent pattern for those
wearing a surgical mask.
The materials used in this published study were fresh and
previously unworn. It is likely that materials conditioned
with water vapor, to create a fabric similar to that which has
been worn for a couple of hours, would show very different
filtration efficiencies and pressure drops. In contrast, a study
of breathing system filters found a greater breakthrough of
bacteriophage MS2 on filters that had been preconditioned.
Although the droplet sizes for both virus and bacteria were
the same and affected the filter media in a similar manner, it
was suggested that the viruses, after contact with the moisture
on the filter, were released from their droplet containment,
and driven onward by the flow of gas.
The average concentration of Streptococcus organisms in
saliva has been estimated to be 6.7 310
is higher than that of influenza viruses in inoculated
Therefore, the number of oral microorganisms
isolated may well provide an indication of the concentration
of influenza being shed. Results from the cough box
demonstrated that surgical masks have a significant effect in
preventing the dispersal of large droplets and some smaller
particles when healthy volunteers coughed. The homemade
mask also prevented the release of some particles, although
not at the same level as the surgical mask. The numbers
of microorganisms isolated from the coughs of healthy
volunteers was in general very low, and it is likely that had
we used volunteers with respiratory infections, the homemade
mask may have shown a more significant effect in preventing
the release of droplets.
It was observed during this study that there was greater
variation among volunteers in their method of fitting the
surgical mask. The need to tie the straps at the back of the
head meant that the surgical mask was fit in a variety of ways.
In contrast, the face mask had looped elastic straps that were
easier for the volunteer to fit.
Comfort should be an important factor in the material used to
make a homemade mask. The pressure drop across a mask is a
useful measure both of resistance to breathing and the
potential for bypass of air around the filter seal. If respiratory
protection is not capable of accommodating the breathing
demands of the wearer, then the device will impose an extra
breathing load on the wearer, which is especially impractic-
able for people with breathing difficulties. Furthermore,
the extra breathing load may induce leakage owing to the
increased negative pressure in the face mask.
In practice, people will not wear an uncomfortable mask for
a long period; even if they do, it is unlikely that they will
wear the mask properly. During the outbreak of severe acute
respiratory syndrome, an account of a flight from Bangkok,
Thailand, to Manchester, England. described mask wearers
removing their mask to cough, sneeze, and wipe their nose
(not necessarily into a handkerchief) and to sort through the
communal bread basket.
For those who wear a mask for
necessity, such as health care workers, regular training and fit
testing must be emphasized. Whereas, for those who choose
to wear a homemade mask, the requirements of cleaning and
changing the mask should be highlighted. Most importantly,
the lower protective capabilities of a homemade mask should
be emphasized so that unnecessary risks are not taken.
A protective mask may reduce the likelihood of infection, but
it will not eliminate the risk, particularly when a disease has
more than 1 route of transmission. Thus any mask, no matter
how efficient at filtration or how good the seal, will have
minimal effect if it is not used in conjunction with other
preventative measures, such as isolation of infected cases,
immunization, good respiratory etiquette, and regular hand
hygiene. An improvised face mask should be viewed as the
last possible alternative if a supply of commercial face masks is
not available, irrespective of the disease against which it may
be required for protection. Improvised homemade face masks
may be used to help protect those who could potentially, for
example, be at occupational risk from close or frequent
contact with symptomatic patients. However, these masks
would provide the wearers little protection from microorgan-
isms from others persons who are infected with respiratory
diseases. As a result, we would not recommend the use of
homemade face masks as a method of reducing transmission
of infection from aerosols.
About the Authors
Public Health England (HPA), Porton Down Salisbury (Dr Walker, Miss Thompson,
Davies and Giri, and Mr Bennett); PHE, Colindale, London (Mr Kafatos),
Address correspondence and reprint requests to Jimmy Walker, PhD, PHE, Porton
Down, Salisbury, SP4 0JG UK (e-mail: email@example.com).
1. MacIntyre CR, Cauchemez S, Dwyer DE, et al. Face mask use and
control of respiratory virus transmission in households. Emerg Infect Dis.
2. Wilkes A, Benbough J, Speight S, Harmer M. The bacterial and
viral filtration performance of breathing system filters. Anaesthesia.
3. Cox C. The Aerobiological Pathway of Microorganisms. Chichester, UK:
John Wiley & Sons; 1987.
4. Sharp RJ, Scawen MD, Atkinson A. Fermentation and downstream
processing of Bacillus. In: Harwood CR, ed. Bacillus. New York, NY:
Plenum Publishing Corporation; 1989.
Are Homemade Masks Effective?
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