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Which Fabric Face Mask Designs Will Keep You Safest?

Four cloth masks on a wooden table.

Whether you’re planning to purchase some masks or sew your own, the type of fabric and construction matter. Here’s what you need to know.

Everything from the fabric to the ear loop design can impact how effective a mask is. If you have a good one, you’ll also need to know how to wear it properly so it protects you. Here’s how to select the right mask design, and how to wear it for the best protection.

Which Fabrics Are Best?

A fabric mask will never be as effective as one that’s medical-grade. Since current shortages mean medical-grade masks are best left to those in the medical field, you want the next best thing. Picking the right fabric—whether you’re shopping for something brand-new or reusing some from home—is the first step.

A good mask will be easy to breathe through, but filter out airborne particles well. Cotton and cotton blends work best for this. A thick fabric with a tight weave offers the most effective protection (think flannel shirt, rather than breezy T-shirt material).

One test actually found that high-quality quilter’s cotton was best for masks. The New York Times offered a helpful breakdown of other effective fabrics and materials that are easy to find at home.

To check for a tight weave, you can hold the fabric up to the light. The less light it allows through, the better. Stretchy fabrics generally aren’t tightly woven enough, but a bit of stretch might help your mask fit better. Also, avoid using worn-out fabrics, which will thin out or develop holes faster.

Your mask should include at least two layers of fabric. With extra layers, virus particles will have a harder time getting through. Make sure the layer of fabric nearest your mouth is comfortable and won’t irritate your skin.

The fabric must be washable—ideally, it’ll be machine washable. You can handwash fabric masks, but machine washing is easier and more efficient. Steer clear of delicate fabrics and designs that will fall apart fast.

Embellishments, like beads or sequins, add more surfaces for viruses to cling to, so you’ll want to avoid them. That said, you can choose a mask in a pattern or color you like, so you’ll feel better about wearing it.

For more detailed information on fabric choices, check out this handy guide written by personal protective equipment experts.

Getting the Right Fit

A woman wearing a snug-fitting cloth mask.
Maria Studio/Shutterstock

Your mask needs to cover your nose and mouth completely. It should extend well past the edges of your mouth and nostrils. It should reach as close to your eyes as possible, and also under your chin, which will help keep it in place. Check for a tight, yet comfortable fit, and make sure you don’t have trouble breathing with it on. There shouldn’t be any gaps on the sides.

Either ties or elastic loops can work to secure the mask in place. Just make sure whichever one you choose feels snug and comfortable. If it has ties, be sure to pull them tight enough to get a snug fit.

A good fabric mask also needs to stay in place after it’s on. Once you’ve put your mask on (with clean hands), you’ll need to avoid touching it until you’re ready to take it off and wash it. Otherwise, you could accidentally spread contamination around. Pick a mask that won’t need adjusting as you move around.

Adding Extra Features

If you can find a mask with a wire nosepiece, these are the best. The wire can be shaped to the contours of your face for a better fit. Plus, if you wear glasses, this feature will help keep them from fogging up.

Some masks also use water-repellant or antimicrobial fabrics, which might help protect you better. The addition of a disposable filter also makes a mask more effective—but a mask without a filter is still better than no mask at all.

How to Wear Your Mask Safely

Once you’ve got the ideal fabric mask, you’ll still need to put it on and take it off responsibly. Otherwise, it might not protect you as well as you’d hoped.

Before and after touching your mask, always wash your hands. Avoid touching the fabric part of it, and use the ties or ear loops when putting it on and taking it off. Treat your mask as though it’s been contaminated by the virus every time you wear it out—because, for all you know, it was.

If you live in a multi-unit building, like an apartment, put your mask on before you walk out your door, and take it off only after you’re back in your home. Lots of contamination might live in your building’s hallway or stairwell.

Lastly, always wash your mask thoroughly after you wear it to get rid of any viruses that might be clinging to the surface.

Still not sure how to put on and take off your mask safely? Check out this guide. It focuses on surgical masks, but has useful tips that can apply to different styles of fabric masks, as well.

This is the best current information on how to choose and wear a face mask. However, keep in mind that recommendations are frequently updated and changed, as new information about the coronavirus comes to light. When in doubt, always follow the latest guidelines from reputable sources, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

With widespread, responsible mask-wearing, we can reduce the threat of COVID-19.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a freelance and creative writer from the Pacific Northwest, and an MFA student at the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop. She specializes in lifestyle writing and creative nonfiction. Read Full Bio »
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