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The Verge’s best and worst coronavirus masks

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The scarf was a disaster

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Loren Grush’s mask solution Photo by Loren Grush / The Verge

Last week, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged Americans to cover their faces in public, even if it’s with something as simple as a bandanna. Wearing a mask probably won’t stop you from catching the novel coronavirus, but a large percentage of infected people don’t show symptoms, and it might limit how much virus you shed if you’ve got COVID-19 without knowing it. As Nicole Wetsman writes, we can also think of this as a large-scale test of how well masks work, so we’ll be better prepared for a future disease outbreak.

With supply chains like Amazon overwhelmed and many products conserved for medical personnel, though, many of us have had to improvise. Some Verge staffers have sewn their own masks. Some attempted the simple “scarf over the face” trick. The results have varied, but here’s what we’ve learned about our chosen methods.

Adi Robertson, Senior Reporter

So I made masks for myself and my husband this weekend, using these guides and some fabric I found in a closet. You basically trace a pattern from your computer screen, cut layers and sew them together, then fold the sides to make channels for string or elastic ties. If you’ve got a sewing machine it’s not too difficult. I’m a sporadic and sloppy seamstress, and I managed it. But that’s obviously a massive “if.”

I don’t have any elastic, so I’m stuck with some finicky yarn for the earbands, and my husband’s mask doesn’t totally fit his beard. (Facial hair: a menace to society?) I feel like a Mortal Kombat character in mine. As long as I don’t talk much, though, it’s comfortable and it stayed on well during a drugstore run.

Am I overcomplicating things out of some primal desire for a feeling of control? I’m curious how people using simpler methods have been doing.

Mary Beth Griggs, Science Editor

Well, I went with the simplest method that’s ever been suggested at a White House press briefing, short of straight-up ignoring the latest CDC guidance and not wearing a mask at all. I wrapped a scarf around my face during a grocery run, and I must report that it was a complete disaster.

Walking into the store from the parking lot was perfectly fine, but by the time I reached the cart corral the fabric started to slip down my nose. I avoided touching my face and tugged it back into place using the ends of the scarf. Unfortunately, that genius move had the side effect of tightening the scarf around my neck. I kept fiddling with it while I wiped down the cart handle. Finally, I felt good about my bandit-looking scarf-mask, and I headed for the produce section. Before I’d gotten to the tomatoes, I’d hiked it up my face twice. The stupid scarf was making me touch my face way more than maskless-me would.

There was nowhere to wash my hands before or after each inadvertent face-touch, so I knew I was either potentially exposing people to my germs or getting exposed to their germs. By the time I reached the hummus, I gave up. For the rest of the trip, I went barefaced and endured the reproachful glares of my fellow shoppers. (Maybe they were smiling sympathetically. I couldn’t tell; they were mostly wearing masks.)

I’m going to have to find another option, but without a sewing machine, I’m not going to be able to match Adi’s badass Mortal Kombat style — do other people have better ideas?

Nicole Wetsman, Science Reporter

I pulled two fabric options out of the depths of my closet: an old cotton t-shirt, and a polyester tie-dye scarf that probably came from Party City. The scarf is very thin and flimsy but big enough to fold over a few times. The cotton T-shirt, on the other hand, is a boring black.

I can’t sew or craft at all, so I used the “fold and secure with rubber bands technique” that the US Surgeon General demoed on both options. I found very old rubber bands that I think came from a rubber band ball kit I used as a birthday party favor in the third grade.

I haven’t taken either out into the world yet, but I wore them around the house. They seem okay. Both stayed in place, and if I put my hand in front of them, I could feel less air coming through than I would with no mask. Tiny virus particles are definitely small enough to sneak through, but at this point, I guess something is better than nothing. Even if only to signal to myself (and other people) that I’m taking this as seriously as I can.

When I go to the store, I’ll probably wear the cotton T-shirt mask. It’s much more washable. The tie-dye is fun, but I think it would melt the second it went into a hot dryer.

Barbara Krasnoff, Reviews Editor

Right now, I’m using a commercial cotton face mask that I bought a couple of years ago to wear while spraying some rather nasty insecticide. I’m glad to have it, but after several handwashes, I’ve realized that it’s not going to last forever. So I’ve started looking for patterns. And looking. There are a lot of them out there — and yes, most of them assume you’ve got a sewing machine.

While I can sew a reasonable seam by hand — in fact, I was very into crewel and embroidery once upon a time — I don’t have a sewing machine. So there’s that.

At first, I was going to try the one described by The New York Times. But each time I read it, it looked more and more complicated. The same with many others. I think I’ve finally found one that I can try, posted by Mary Robinette Kowal, a writer and puppeteer (and all-around nice person). While she uses a sewing machine, her pattern is simple enough so that even I might be able to handle it.

However, in second place is the mask made out of a sock. I love the ingenuity of this, although it would probably make most medical professionals wince. I imagine that the weave of your typical sock is loose enough to let a pebble through, never mind a virus. But it would certainly be better than nothing, and it looks like anyone could do it in about five minutes.

Russell Brandom, Policy Editor

I already had a cloth mask handy going into this, although I will admit this is the first time I’ve actually worn it. It’s a nice multiply cloth thing in a lovely plaid pattern. A friend of mine bought a crate of them from China as part of a retail scheme that ultimately fell through, at which point he started giving them away. (I shudder to think how much that crate would be worth now.) It’s generally fine, although it fastens over the mouth with little elastic loops that are way too long and I’ve had to knot them just to keep it in place. Also, my glasses keep fogging up, so I often just take them off, which I suppose increases my risk of ocular contraction.

Natt Garun, Senior Reviewer

I admittedly haven’t gone outside much given that I’m considered high risk, but when I have to go to a grocery store, I try to cover my face with a combination of turtlenecks, high-collar jackets, and a scarf. I’m honestly not sure how effective that is, but it does give me a small (and perhaps false) sense of security, and hopefully it does for other people that have to be around me. This weekend, I plan to fashion some more face coverings that are a little more warm weather-friendly now that it’s getting springlike in New York City, using a fold method with bandanas and fabric scraps to last us until we get a shipment of face masks that our family members are sending in the mail.

Grayson Blackmon, Senior Motion Designer

My family already had some N99 masks for outside work from quite a while ago with replaceable filters, so we’re actually pretty okay in that regard. My father in Mississippi, though, has cobbled together some truly ingenious face coverings. He’s used a pattern to turn a T-shirt into a tight wraparound mask as well as using bandanas and paper towels. But his true pièce de résistance is his converted CPAP face covering. He’s made a makeshift filter using a ziplock bag stuffed with cotton balls, and tiny holes at the bottom of the bag so air has to filter upward through the cotton balls before being breathed in. It’s definitely the most air-tight solution he’s come up with, and it’s stylish to boot (in an apocalyptic way).

Loren Grush, Senior Science Reporter

For the last week, my husband and I have been wrapping our faces in these face-covering infinity scarves that his parents got us for Christmas. At the time, I wasn’t sure exactly when I’d ever wear the one I got. Now, it’s one of my most prized possessions. We truly look like we’re about to rob a bank while wearing them, so it was a really surreal moment when we passed by two police officers the other day on our way home from the pharmacy. They were also wearing masks. We waved at one another.

But now I think that I may be the most spoiled here, as my mother-in-law is an expert sewer and made us our own customized denim masks, which we just got in the mail yesterday. She actually asked me for my measurements, specifically the length from my nose to my chin. (What can I say? I married into the right family.)

She used this pattern, meant to be worn by health care workers over their N95 masks. We don’t have any N95 masks (because we are definitely not health care workers), but we do have some cheap medical masks that my husband bought before we left for our honeymoon, just before the US started sheltering in place. So we’ll now be sporting two layers of material on our trips to the grocery store or our quick walks around the block with our dog. I like that our outer layer mask is made out of denim; we must keep the hipster spirit alive here in New York City.

Sarah Smithers, Senior Editorial Coordinator

I am both a terrible and impatient seamstress. The last time I tried to sew something, I made three unsuccessful attempts at threading the needle before I had to ragequit. So my first solution for a DIY mask was to simply tie a handkerchief around my face. It was okay for the first 10 seconds of my morning dog walk... and then it started to slide down. The fabric felt itchy, my breath was hot against my face, and I kept getting my hair caught whenever I attempted to tighten the knot in the back. As the dogs dragged me around the block, I tried to keep calm as I thought, “I can barely breathe in this dumb thing” and “Don’t touch your face, don’t touch your face, don’t touch your face.”

Thankfully, my fiancé also hated the handkerchief, and he is infinitely more patient than I am.

His fix was to follow the CDC’s quick cut T-shirt covering guide and add a few tweaks. He cut a few extra swaths of fabric from the shirts and stitched them to the inside of the mask to create a little pocket. He also cut up a clean HEPA air conditioner filter, flattened it under some heavy books, and slid that into the pocket.

This fix is way more comfortable and the addition of the filter makes me feel slightly less anxious about venturing outdoors. Now that I am basically living in sweats and pajamas, this is the only “accessory” I’ve added to my outfit in ages. I’ve already started digging through my drawers to find more shirts to sacrifice. While my current mask is a classic black that goes with everything, I would love to get some more colors into the mix. Maybe a nice floral for spring? Ideally, I would have a different color or patterned mask for each day of the week. Maybe then I could remember what day it actually is.