Doctor recommends making your own cloth face mask with air 'filter' - here's how to do it

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In desperate times, wearing a cloth mask is better than having no mask on at all ⁠— true or false?

Well, yes and no.

Dr Chen Xiaoting, a Taiwanese anaesthesiologist, is one proponent of using cloth masks, provided they are used correctly and washed often. 

He even recommends making your own.

In a Facebook post on Feb 7, Dr Chen wrote how he makes his own masks with a piece of cloth and the help of a tailor.

But unlike ordinary cloth masks, his is fortified with a secret element — a piece of non-woven fabric inserted into an opening in the mask. 

Surgical masks are made from what’s called “melt-blown, non-woven fabric”, but with surgical face masks and N95 masks flying off shelves, Dr Chen said common folk may be hard-pressed to find them easily.

Cloth masks are also friendlier on your wallet and the environment, said Dr Chen, who spent about NT$55 (S$2.54) on fabric to make three reusable masks. He shared that his own mask is made from a blue Kyoto cotton fabric picked out from a market.

He explained that the three-layer structure of surgical masks consists of a waterproof non-woven layer in the front, the microfibre melt-blown non-woven fabric in the middle, and another layer of ordinary non-woven fabric at the back.

He shared that he uses wet tissues that have been dried out then stuffed into a specially-made slot in his cloth mask, adding, "even toilet paper is also fine!"

But he stressed that these materials or provisional air filters should always be new and not reused. "Don't skimp on such things!" said Dr Chen.

He added that the importance of a mask is just to "prevent someone else's spittle from touching your own".

While N95 masks are effective, it should be worn only when necessary, he added, and the elderly with heart disease should avoid it as it may cause difficulty in breathing. He wrote: "I saw an old uncle the other day, he couldn't breathe and experienced chest tightness from wearing a surgical mask and was sent to the emergency department!"

In his Facebook post, he also shared his responses to questions on whether cloth masks are hygienic or effective.

"As long as it's washed daily (it's fine), or if it's wet, change it," said Dr Chen.

"The sealing effect of surgical masks is not 100 per cent, air can still enter in and come out from the side of the mask, unless it is a very tight N95 mask. However, N95 should only be worn during the most critical moments. It does not need to be worn in a low-risk environment, because you won't be able to wear it for long."

If you're interested to learn how to make your own cloth mask, a Taiwanese business-owner who specialises in hand-made products offered this neat tutorial in a Facebook post:

It begins with a piece of cloth like this:

And the pattern for it:

The process involves ironing the folds, sewing in the sides and affixing the elastic loops. The next few steps are a little technical, but crafty home-sewers should have no problem following the instructions:

Most importantly, leave a pocket for inserting your improvised air filter. For an even closer fit, they recommend lining a metal wire at the top of the mask so it can conform to the contours of your face.

While a cloth face mask definitely adds a layer of protection, and probably beats having nothing on in times of need, one should remember to still heed hygiene precautions when taking off your mask, and to change them regularly, especially if it gets damp.

According to The Straits Times, a study of reusable cloth masks carried out in Vietnam involving more than 1,600 healthcare workers found that "moisture retention, reuse of cloth masks and poor filtration may result in increased risk of infection".

On the other hand, medical experts have said that wearing recommended surgical masks are not foolproof either.

Dr David Carrington, a clinical virologist at St George's, University of London, told BBC News that "routine surgical masks for the public are not an effective protection against viruses or bacteria carried in the air" because they are too loose, have no air filter and leave the eyes exposed.

As always, the best form of protection is to continue to practise good personal and hand hygiene.

For the latest updates on the coronavirus, visit here.

candicecai@asiaone.com