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The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare on 4 April 2020 issued an advisory recommending the use of "face covers" or homemade, washable and reusable masks, for the general public. These masks are for use by people who haven't contracted the infection and who don't have difficulty breathing, as they offer 70% protection and are easy to wash and reuse (medical masks, which offer 97% protection are single-use masks).

According to the government advisory, everyone who is healthy should wear such a face cover while stepping out of the house during the COVID-19 pandemic. These face covers are recommended in addition to steps like physical distancing and maintaining proper hand hygiene.

As of 4 April 2020, the global outbreak of the new coronavirus infection had led to over a million infections and 50,000 deaths worldwide, bringing the world economy to a standstill as countries grapple with different methods to stop the disease spreading further. India, too, had seen a dramatic rise in the number of cases in late March-early April.

Guidelines issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) and various government agencies include practising physical distancing (changing their terminology from social distancing earlier), maintaining good individual hygiene by frequently cleaning hands with soap or hand sanitizers and wearing masks in public places, remaining indoors as well as enforcing countrywide lockdowns.

Soon after the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic on 11 March 2020, items such as hand sanitizers and masks started flying off the shelves in India too. After the government clamped down on any hoarding of hand sanitizers in March, these have become available in chemist shops and Kirana shops. Masks, however, continue to be in short supply - which has also left healthcare workers struggling to keep themselves safe while dealing with infected patients.

In response to this, the Ministry of Science and Technology came up with a novel idea to overcome the shortage of masks for the general public. On 31 March, the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India suggested an innovative solution for making masks at home to counter this shortage.

  1. How to make masks at home
  2. How to use and wash homemade masks during COVID-19
  3. Takeaways
  4. Doctors for Face covers to battle COVID-19

According to Dr Shailja Vaidya Gupta, Senior Adviser at the Office of the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government, "This is primarily meant for the people who want to wear a mask but do not have access to it. They can make these washable and reusable masks at home."

The manual, issued by the Office of the Principal Scientific Adviser, includes information about why wearing a mask is important in the battle against the spread of the COVID-19, and adds that "once 80% of the population wears a mask, the outbreak can be stopped immediately", quoting a research study.

A used cotton cloth salvaged from old clothes can be used to make a mask at home.

Here's what you will need:

  • 100% cotton fabric
  • Salt
  • Water
  • A vat
  • Needle and thread to sew
  • Scissors

How to make the mask:

  • Place the cloth in a vat of water. Add salt to it. Let it boil for 5 minutes. Let the cloth dry completely.
  • Now, cut a 9x7 inch piece out of the fabric to make a mask for adults. (Though taking children out at this time should be avoided, if you do need a mask for a child, cut a 7x5 inch piece out of the fabric.)
  • Now make three horizontal pleats in such a way that it reduces the length of the cut fabric from 9 inches to 5 inches - try to keep the pleats equidistant. You can use pins to hold the pleats in place. Now sew them in place.
  • Now cut two 1.5x40 inch strings of cloth from the fabric and two 1.5x5 inch strips.
  • Use the 1.5x5 inch strips to hem the sides of the mask.
  • Now, pick one of the longer strips from the middle and sew it to the top of the mask. Sew the other long string, similarly, to the bottom of the mask. These strings should be long enough that you can tie the four loose ends behind your head.

Similar in design to a surgical mask that has pleats at the front, these masks can be sewn into the fabric by following the manual.

If you don't have a sewing kit handy, you can also make a makeshift mask with a handkerchief and two rubber bands. Remember to maintain a physical distance of six feet from everyone else and exercise hand hygiene even if you are wearing this mask.

Here's what you will need:

  • A large handkerchief
  • Two big rubber bands

Here's how to make this mask:

  • Make three folds in the handkerchief.
  • Tie a rubber band on each side of the cloth, leaving enough space in the middle to cover your mouth and nose. Fold the two outer sides of the cloth into the rubber bands. 
  • Hold the rubber bands from both sides, cover your face and nose with the cloth and wrap the rubber bands around your ears.

There's a proper way to wear and remove the mask to avoid infections. The most important thing is to avoid touching the surface of the mask. Here are the steps you should follow for homemade masks:

  • The mask should only be worn from one side and never reversed for reuse.
  • To put it on, place the mask over your nose, mouth and chin while touching only the strings.
  • Tie the strings at the back of your head.
  • Now check that the mask fits you well and there is no gap on any side or any gaps between your face and the cloth.
  • The front of the mask should never be touched by your hands.
  • Even after you wear the home-made mask, don't forget to maintain a two-metre (six feet) distance from others at all times and practice hand hygiene.

To remove the mask as soon as you return home, touch only the strings - never the front of the mask. Put the mask for washing (steps for this are listed below). Wash your hands thoroughly afterwards.

You can choose any of the following methods to wash and dry the mask after each use:

  • Place the mask in a pressure cooker along with boiling water and salt. Leave it on the gas for 10 minutes. Let the mask dry completely before the next use.
  • Wash the mask with detergent and water. Put it out in the sun light for at least five hours.
  • Wash the mask well with detergent and water. Iron it for at least five minutes, if you need to reuse the mask in a hurry. Make sure the mask is completely dry before you reuse it.

Read more: Can masks protect against COVID-19?

The shortage of masks across the country has been a cause for concern, especially for those at high risk of contracting the infection - like family members of a COVID-19 patient, or medical staff dealing with positive cases on a daily basis.

Those who haven’t been able to procure readymade masks for themselves must try making masks themselves and continue to practise all the safety guidelines mandated by authorities of the country they reside in.

Read more: Home-based care for COVID-19 patients

Dr. Arun R

Dr. Arun R

Infectious Disease
5 Years of Experience

Dr. Neha Gupta

Dr. Neha Gupta

Infectious Disease
16 Years of Experience

Dr. Lalit Shishara

Dr. Lalit Shishara

Infectious Disease
8 Years of Experience

Dr. Alok Mishra

Dr. Alok Mishra

Infectious Disease
5 Years of Experience

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References

  1. Ministry of Health and Family Welfare [Internet] Government of India, New Delhi. Advisory on use of Homemade Protective Cover for Face & Mouth.
  2. Center for Disease Control and Prevention [internet], Atlanta (GA): US Department of Health and Human Services; Personal Protective Equipment FAQs.
  3. Australian Government: Department of Health [Internet]. Canberra, Australia. Coronavirus (COVID-19) information on the use of surgical masks.
  4. Davies A et al. Testing the Efficacy of Homemade Masks: Would They Protect in an Influenza Pandemic?  Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness. 2013 Aug; 7(4): 413-418.
  5. Center for Disease Control and Prevention [internet], Atlanta (GA): US Department of Health and Human Services; Recommendation Regarding the Use of Cloth Face Coverings, Especially in Areas of Significant Community-Based Transmission.
  6. World Health Organization [Internet]. Geneva (SUI): World Health Organization; Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public: When and how to use masks.
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