As new variants and increasing incidences appear, while at the same time mask mandates for public indoor spaces are lifted (…), mask upgrades and mask optimisation are once more discussed widely – and more often than not, the topic is oversimplified. Therefore, I would like to summarize our various DIY approaches to making masks safer and more efficient for the new challenges we’re all facing these days! For further information, you’ll find links in the text.
What exactly makes masks efficient, e.g. safe?
The efficiency of masks is determined by both filter and fit. Clapp et al found that surgical masks with the usual loose fit provide less than 40% filtration efficiency, but more than 80% when gapless – which illustrates (a) filter powers of medical mask materials as well as (b) the need for sealing them gapless. After all, I don’t think it’s either medical or cloth mask, but using the best of both worlds to achieve higher efficiency, and there is more than one way to do that!
(1) Respirators like FFP2, N95 or KN95 for Risk Situations
FFP2 / N95 is the gold standard for masks. If available, we highly recommend them! Respirators have a rather high breathing resistance though, so if edges don’t fit gapless, the air will take the easier path and not get filtered.
There are some very simple ways to improve the fit of a FFP2 / N95 respirator mask, without any added extras:
★ FFP2 / N95 won’t peak in the middle after you’ve flattened and rolled their nose wires around a finger, in advance.
★ Instead of pulling loops over your ears, tie the mask behind your head, f.e. with an ear saver or a simple paper clip.
★ If for some reason you prefer to go with ear loops, at least make them fit tightly, f.e. by adding an adjustable knot.
★ With all types of masks, please always make sure to adjust the nose piece really well to your nose and cheeks!
With very little crafting, the fit of a FFP2 / N95 respirator mask can be even further optimized:
★ Masks that are much too large can be folded (like a sewn dart) and stapled or glued at the lower, inner tip.
★ Sometimes, stick-on foam rubber strips (available in rolls) help to seal the fit around the nose gaplessly.
In professional settings (e.g. hospital), respirator masks are fit tested to ensure that employees chose exactly the right model and that it fits absolutely gapless. We can’t replicate this at home, but there are indicators for leakage:
★ If glasses fog up or peppermint / eucalyptus candy stings in the eyes, the upper edge of the mask might leak.
★ If you breathe heavily, the mask should bulge! Any draft or movement along the edges clearly indicate gaps.
You can read more about all types of masks and mask / filter materials, the importance of filtering and fit, as well as a whole lot of practical tests, tips and tricks to be replicated at home in my recently revised post about Mask Science. ➔
If you find a respirator mask that fits gapless on you, right out of the box, I think you should consider yourself lucky – and wear it! If it doesn’t, you might want to look for another, and / or read on, to find ways to make it fit better…
(2) Adding Mask Frames for a Gapless Seal
Mask frames (also known as braces or fitters) are open at the front and do not restrict breathability. They can be worn over FFP2, N95 or KN95 masks as well as over medical, surgical or procedure masks. Mask frames are particularly effective on top of surgical masks, which are designed to protect only against spit and therefore never fit gaplessly.
I recently invented the Hybrid Mask Frame (see above), which you can easily and quickly sew or just staple (there’s a separate, simplified pattern for that). Thanks to a reverse pleat in the nose area, very most people won’t even need a nose wire to perfectly seal ill-fitting FFP2, N95, KN95 or surgical masks gapless, and banish all fogging or slipping. ➔
(3) The Best of Both Worlds: Double Masking for a Gapless Fit
With risk persons in the family, we have to be particularly careful. Unfortunately, all FFP2, N95 or KN95 masks we’ve tested so far gape badly on all of us. Therefore, we’ve started early on to combine (a) the filter efficiency of medical masks and materials with (b) the gaplessly sealing fit they require to use this filter efficiency by Double Masking, e.g. wearing Hybrid Pleated Masks on top. Those cover masks do not only reliably seal FFP2, N95 or KN95 masks gapless, but they also protect them from getting wet or dirty, so that they can be worn and reused a little longer than usual.
(3a) Double Masking with Respirators Masks like FFP2, N95 or KN95
FFPS2, N95 and KN95 respirator masks are all quite rigid, so the cover size is determined rather by the respirator than by the face it needs to fit on. My family member usually wear quite different sizes of cloth masks, but as a top mask, the Hybrid Pleated Mask in length L-XL and width M fits best for all of us. I sew our top masks with one or two layers of spunbond NWPP and / or thin, breathable cotton, and I’ve recently added Hybrid Cover Mask patterns to the PDF! ➔
The Hybrid Mask is also suitable as a top mask for short bearded people, because when the side channels are tightly drawn, they press protruding cheek hair much closer to the face, which drastically reduces the usual beard gaps.
(3b) Double Masking with Medical, Surgical or Procedure Masks
Surgical masks are made as a source control for spraying droplets, not to protect their wearer from aerosols lingering in the air, so they don’t fit gapless at all, even by definition. Their material makes an excellent filter though, and when combined with a gaplessly sealing cloth mask on top, you can reach a surprisingly high filtration efficiency!
For sealing surgical masks gapless, you can use either the standard Hybrid Pleated Mask, one of the Hybrid Custom Masks (incl. Hybrid Bearded Mask with extended bottom part, Hybrid Nose Mask with extended top part, Hybrid Space Mask and a variety of Hybrid Shape Masks), or the Hybrid Boxy Mask with 1-3 thin layers. If old homemade masks fit gapless and don’t have too many layers, adding a surgical mask underneath can be a decent upgrade!
Underneath top masks, we always knot-and-tuck ear loops of surgical masks, right where they are attached to the mask, to make them fit better underneath and to help the masks to comfortably protrude in front of nose and mouth.
(4) High Filtration Materials and Filter Inserts
Some people, f.e. children or elderly, have a very hard time handling double masks or mask frames, particularly for the two sets of ties, while others simply dislike both solutions, yet don’t want to compromise on filter efficiency.
So, yet another option for combining efficient filtering and gapless fit is by using a cloth mask with certified high-tech filter inserts, such as Halyard, Filti or simply cut surgical masks. If that’s your preferred method, please always make sure that you’re covering the entire surface, not only the middle, and consider using more than one filter layer!
Those filters can be inserted to the versatile Hybrid Pleated Mask as well as to all the special Hybrid Custom Masks (such as Hybrid Bearded Mask, Hybrid Nose Mask or Hybrid Space Mask) and the spacious Hybrid Boxy Mask.
If you find filter openings as fiddly as we do, you can equip your masks with the far less fiddly Filter Frames! Special Filter Frame patterns are offered for the Hybrid Pleated Mask (separate post) and for the Hybrid Boxy Mask. ➔
(5) Cloth Masks for Low Risk Settings
Some makers claim their cloth masks to be “better than N95s”. Usually, this can be tracked back to a study by Konda et al, which showed high filtration for silk and chiffon… Unfortunately, this study has errors and was corrected later!
For low risk settings, you might still want to wear a cloth mask. With two layers of densely woven cotton (f.e. quilter’s or batik), you’ll get a low filtration, which is better than nothing, but could be more useful as cover for medical masks!
You can rise that filtration by using different materials, f.e. sandwiching one or more layers of spunbond NWPP (non-woven polypropylene), which has a pretty good filtration / breathability ratio. This way, you can make a decent mask, even though you likely won’t get anywhere even close to the filtration of the materials of a certified medical mask.
For cloth masks with 2-3 layers, the simple but surprisingly versatile Hybrid Pleated Mask as well as all the special Hybrid Custom Masks (such as Hybrid Bearded Mask, Hybrid Nose Mask or Hybrid Space Mask) are most suitable. For more than 3-4 layers, heavier or stronger materials, we recommend the extremely spacious Hybrid Boxy Mask!
For anyone who can’t or won’t sew, I:ve invented the Hybrid Instant Mask for handicrafts, or better: stapling! So far, it is only available for the classic pattern, but the stapling trick can also be used for one of the other patterns.
Our (Double) Masking Choices in a Chart
After being asked about this a couple of times, here’s a little chart of the choices me and my family are making.
For (a) High Risk Situations, we wear certified FFP2 / N95 masks sealed gaplessly by 1-2 ply Hybrid Cover Masks, for (b) Mid Risk, we may choose certified surgical masks knotted by the sides then sealed gaplessly by 2-3 ply Hybrid Pleated or Boxy Masks, and for (c) Minimal Risk, we may wear 3-4 ply NWPP Hybrid Pleated or Boxy Masks on their own. Filti batches vary in efficiency, but if was available in Germany, we might use it for rather Low Risk Situations.
|Risk||Mask / Filter||With Gap||No Gap||Seal gapless with Hybrid||Layers||Material⁶|
|High||FFP2 / N95¹||< 35%²||> 95%¹||Cover (= L/M) / Brace||1-2||NWPP / CT|
|Mid||Surgical¹||< 40%³||> 80%³ / > 95%¹||Pleat / Cust / Boxy / Brace||2-3||NWPP / CT|
|Low||Filti||N/A||< 20%⁵ / > 65%⁴||Pleat / Cust / Boxy + Frame||2-3||NWPP / CT|
|Mini||Cloth Only||N/A||N/A||Pleat / Cust / Boxy||3-4||NWPP / CT|
¹ Approved by CE (EU) or NIOSH for submicron particle filtration with ~0.3 μm / ASTM for bacterial filtration with ~3.0 μm (US); specs see Makermask, locations see 3M, ² Konda et al (corrected for methodological errors!), ³ Clapp et al, ⁴ Hao et al, ⁵ Bement et al, ⁶ For top masks, we use NWPP with shirting inside. Test in advance if you can breathe well!
For comparison, I meant to show the average filter efficiency of material combinations used by makers, but studies have very different test settings and materials involved, plus results vary so much that they’re hardly predictable. For your own comparison, I recommend studies by MakerMask, Hao et al, Mask FAQ, and the FMVIZ Calculator.
In terms of filtering and breathability, fabric can’t really compete with materials used for medical masks, and as more infectuous virus variants are spreading, I advise against wearing low filtration masks in high risk situations. Cloth masks make great top masks though – f.e. to seal surgical masks gapless and thereby, double their filter efficiency!
Further Tipps and Recommendations
Please always use certified masks (CE for EU, NIOSH / ASTM for US) or materials and make sure in advance that you can breathe well, f.e. by climbing stairs. If you have any breathing issues with double masks, please try frames!
Transmission routes are not only mucous membranes of mouth and nose, but also eyes. If others are not wearing a mask and there is a risk that droplets or aerosols will get into your eyes, you can protect them with glasses or goggles.
With the German mask mandate for public spaces ending, many fear to become victims of assaults if they are the only ones wearing a mask, e.g. in a supermarket, and that others might try to rip their masks off. This is easy to do with ear loops, but more complicated with (double) back-of-the-head ties, so these could possibly be safer for such situations.
Conditions of Use, Rights and Sharing
This design, pattern and instructions are protected by German copyright laws (© Iris Luckhaus | All rights reserved). I hereby agree to a non-commercial use of my design, which means that you may sew masks for yourself, your family and friends or for donating them to others for free, given that my copyright, name and website are always included!
Without my prior written permission, you may not reproduce, distribute or commercially use any of this material in any way. This means that you are not authorized to present this design (or modifications of it) as your own, and that you may not publish your own photo or video tutorials with my pattern! As long as it’s not a tutorial though, I enjoy seeing your pictures with my mask, and thank you very much for tagging @irisluckhaus and #luckhausmask! :)
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