Air-conditioning filters, sheer curtains, staples and yarn — they aren’t the typical supplies for a medical face mask, but a team at Texas A&M University found a way to make it work. 

Biomedical engineering professor and Vice Dean of the Engineering Medicine program Dr. John Criscione led the effort to test do-it-yourself masks for places experiencing shortages in standard protective gear due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

After dozens of design tests, the group developed an alternative that performs like an N95 mask, which health care professionals wear to filter 95% of airborne particles, including viruses. Certified N95 masks, Criscione said, are used for high-risk situations. 

The group’s do-it-yourself mask instruction video is available at enmed.tamu.edu/DIYmasks for health care workers who are considering making their own and want to use something that has been tested. While Criscione’s group ran many tests to ensure the alternative performs like an N95 mask, it is not a certified product, so health care workers are encouraged to use official masks before resorting to a homemade option.

Criscione said he’d hoped nobody would need to resort to the method his team created, but he has already heard from medical professionals putting it to use. He said this alternative is meant for crisis situations. 

“We wanted to take away some of the risk,” Criscione said, “rather than having to burden [health care workers] … they’re taking a risk anyway by treating the patient, then they have the additional risk, perhaps, of using untested technology. So we just wanted to do some testing to decrease some of that.”

Criscione said he began testing different methods for making homemade masks when he was approached by emergency medical professionals in the state faced with limited supplies. 

Using material that is safe to inhale and ensuring a mask fits properly are two of the most critical factors for people creating their own gear, Criscione said. If air is leaking in through gaps, he said, the device is not effective. 

He said four layers of AC filters are needed to be up to an N95 standard, and the sheer curtain helps keep the mask together. It is possible to sew the masks, but Criscione said the team used staples to help limit how much people need to measure when working. Elastic works best to tie the mask on, but since effectiveness hinges on elasticity and length, Criscione said a thick yarn will do. 

Once someone learns the pattern, Criscione said, masks should take about 10 minutes to build.

Criscione said that some larger facilities have said they are using the DIY method, partly as a way to help conserve their actual materials for severe scenarios. He said most institutions using homemade masks are places that “everyday live on the verge of supply” such as rural or underserved communities.

The N95 alternative mask testing is complete, and by the end of the week, Criscione and his team will have data on how well other household materials, including coffee filters and pillow cases, work. 

“We’re testing everything,” Criscione said. 

Criscione said there eventually will be information available for what types of masks could be useful in different types of lower risk situations, such as going to the grocery store. 

Cardiovascular devices are Criscione’s specialty, but he said he’s happy to have the chance to create alternative face masks.

“If this is what’s needed, I’m willing to do it,” Criscione said. “I think that’s what I like about the environment at A&M is we always ask ‘What’s needed?’ and that’s what we work on.”

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