As we’ve discussed before, there are pros and cons to cloth masks, and some organisations are still on the fence about whether it’s worthwhile to convince everyone to wear them. The WHO, for example, has yet to provide an official opinion on cloth masks but hinted on Wednesday that that could change.
If you do start wearing cloth masks, here’s a few things to remember:
Wearing a masks doesn’t mean you can go out more often
Masks are an addition to the precautions you’re already taking, not a substitute. You still need to wash your hands often. You still need to stay six feet away from people. You should still stay the fuck home as much as possible.
Masks are not a magical force field—not even the medical kinds. And recall that even at their best, cloth masks don’t work nearly as well as medical ones.
Even if everybody is wearing masks, the virus can still travel on people’s germy hands and belongings. It can still slip through the gaps between the mask and your face. It can possibly even make it through the mask fabric itself, especially if the mask is damp. You could still transmit the virus to someone else, or pick it up from someone else, if you’re wearing a mask.
Consider masks to be contaminated after wearing
Remember, if the point of a mask is to catch respiratory droplets, then a mask that has been worn is now full of (and very probably soaked with) those droplets.
The World Health Organisation’s PSAs on masks assume that you’re wearing a disposable surgical mask (which you shouldn’t, because there’s a shortage of those masks, and healthcare workers need them most). But it’s reasonable to assume that similar precautions should apply to cloth masks. Here are their recommendations for how to handle a mask to avoid spreading the grossness around:
Avoid touching the mask while using it; if you do, clean your hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.
Replace the mask with a new one as soon as it is damp and do not reuse single-use masks.
To remove the mask: remove it from behind (do not touch the front of mask); discard immediately in a closed bin; clean hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.
So you don’t want to carry the same cloth mask around and stuff it in your pocket every time; nor do you want to use your scarf as a face covering and then continually touch your scarf. Treat your cloth face coverings as if they’re contaminated after wearing and assume your hands are contaminated if they have touched your masks.
The U.S. CDC says that face coverings should be machine washable and that they be “routinely washed” in a washing machine. No word on whether sink laundry is acceptable or not.
There’s no clear answer about what type of mask is best
The truth is, this recommendation is unprecedented: Nobody has undertaken large-scale studies of how to get an entire population wearing cloth masks in the most effective way possible, or even whether it’s worthwhile. Even our public health agencies are kind of guessing.
This extends to choosing the right type of mask. The CDC recommends using something with multiple layers of fabric, but then provides three DIY recommendations, one of which calls for only a single layer of t-shirt fabric. Another of their designs suggests you can sew two layers of cotton together, but their third recommendation is for a bandana style mask in which you can insert a coffee filter. Why are multiple layers of a bandana not enough here, when two layers of the plain cotton were fine?
The advice is inconsistent, probably because there’s no reason to choose one over another. The Washington Post also asked experts for their preferences, and didn’t find any consensus about what type of mask is best. “There’s no evidence pointing towards one type,” said Raina MacIntyre, one of the epidemiologists they talked with.
When you’re choosing a pattern, it makes sense to go for whatever lets you keep a snug fit against the face and is comfortable enough that you won’t be tempted to take it off. Beyond that, we’re in uncharted territory.