Photo: Getty Images)
Photo: Getty Images)

SocietyAugust 12, 2020

Everything you need to know about buying and making face masks

Photo: Getty Images)
Photo: Getty Images)

Along with heightened alert levels, New Zealand has a new advisory on masks: Aucklanders should wear a face covering when outside the home, and the rest of us have been advised to wear one when in a confined public space, such as on public transport. But what kind of mask do you need, and where do you get one? Here’s The Spinoff’s guide to masking up to help crush Covid-19 once and for all. 

Why wear a mask?

The big reason you need to wear a mask is to protect others. If you are infected with Covid-19 but don’t know it, a mask will help reduce the chance you could spread the virus.

It’s important to keep in mind, however, that authorities are clear that masks are not a substitute for staying home if you are unwell, physical distancing and good hygiene practices, so keep washing those hands!

So do we need to wear a mask or not?

While masks are currently not mandatory, if you live in Auckland the current directive under level three is to wear a mask (or other face covering over your mouth and nose) when in public. For the rest of the country at alert level two, face masks are advised for times when you’re in crowded spaces like public transport or a supermarket.

There have also been calls for national “mask day” exercises to get New Zealanders used to the idea of wearing masks. University of Otago epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker has long championed the concept of “mass masking” to combat Covid-19 but given recent developments it looks like we’re skipping over the trial runs of wearing masks and going straight to wearing them for real instead.

Masks made by Ōtara-based fashion designer Tasha Lee. (Photo: supplied)

OK, so what types of masks should we be wearing?

There are lots of different types of masks but the three main types of masks you have probably heard of are N95 respirator masks, surgical masks and cloth or home-made masks.

The N95s are masks that form a really tight seal around the wearer’s face and are designed to protect the wearer from breathing in or swallowing droplets and other bad stuff like bacteria. The N95s are needed by healthcare workers caring for Covid-19 patients and form part of their PPE kit, so the experts say to leave those types of masks for those who need them most.

Surgical masks are those single-use blue masks that once upon a time we only associated with George Clooney scrubbing in for surgery. Disposable and loose fitting, they cover your mouth, nose and chin and are mainly used by the wearer to stop spreading their respiratory secretions – like droplets from a sneeze – to others. It’s important to remember they are disposable, so after you’ve use the mask once it has to go into the rubbish bin and can’t be washed and reused.

Cloth masks are like surgical masks but are made out of several layers of cloth that prevent droplets being coughed into the atmosphere. Many of them also include a pocket designed to hold a removable filter layer, providing extra protection. Unlike surgical masks, most cloth masks can be washed after each use. If going the cloth mask route it’s recommended that you keep two per person in the household so one can be worn while the other is in the wash, and that you wash your mask straight after being out and wearing it.

A woman wearing a single-use surgical mask (Photo: Getty Images)

Where do we buy masks? Are there any still left?

Many of us would have watched Tuesday night’s press conference and had a mild panic about not owning any face masks before immediately starting to Google “where to buy face masks”.

The good news is that there’s lots of local retailers making and selling face masks and even better, some still have masks in stock. Obviously there’s quite a bit of extra demand for masks so the best bet is to grab your masks as soon as you can, to only buy what you need, and to be patient with delivery times. If a retailer is sold out, they are likely to restock so check back later.

You can buy cloth masks from the following retailers (among others):

Our Taiao is small whānau business that sells Māori and Polynesian patterned reusable masks.

Cactus Outdoor sells reusable cotton masks with a wool filter insert.

Hills Hats sells washable face masks made from cotton or linen.

Masks by Kenzy sell reusable, washable cotton masks.

Alannah Hill sell reusable cotton face masks with single-use filters.

Little Yellow Bird has a range of organic cotton masks in adult and kids sizes and their have very helpfully included on their own website a really good list of other retailers who are selling masks.

Hutton Homewares sells a range of 100 per cent cotton reusable masks.

Fanny Adams Underwear has double-layered, reversible cotton masks.

Lily Peas Blossom is selling masks with polypropylene filters and nose wire in men’s, womens and children’s sizes.

Arrow Uniforms makes and sells a fully-washable mask that has a clear PVC window over the mouth to support those who need visual communication to speak others.

Single use surgical masks can be found in most supermarkets and pharmacies and places like Bunnings and Mitre 10, but stocks could be running low so it’s a good idea to ring around. Alternatively Trade Me is a good place to look for disposable masks, particularly in bulk.

Additionally, Jacinda Ardern said today that the government will release five million masks from New Zealand’s central supply, to “support distribution into the areas where they’re needed”, including to those for whom the cost of masks is prohibitive.

Can I make my own mask?

Absolutely you can make your own mask. If you are handy with a sewing machine there are lots of different patterns you can use to make a mask and a lot of them are available for free in online lists like this one.

There are also plenty of DIY tutorials on YouTube, like this one that shows you how to make a mask in less than 10 minutes.

Not a sewer? Here’s how to make a mask out of a sock or a t-shirt – no stitching required.

So what do I make my mask out of?

If you are planning to make your own reusable mask the type of material you use can make a big difference to its effectiveness. Most reusable masks being sold in New Zealand are made from cotton, so that’s a safe bet if making your own. If you can’t buy fabric from a shop then try cutting up an old t-shirt.

According to these researchers the top five most effective materials for a DIY mask are denim, bed sheets, paper towels, canvas and “shop towels” (a polyester absorbent material that’s particularly good at cleaning up oil, grease and other liquid spills and often found in a mechanic’s garage).

Can I just use a bandana?

Yes, but it’s not as straightforward as just tying one around your face. America’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a bandana if it has been turned into a “non-sewn mask” , which means it includes multiple layers of fabric and is secured with ties or ear loops. The CDC has issued a nifty DIY guide to turning bandanas or old t-shirts into non-sewn masks, which can be found here.

But if you can’t turn your bandana into a non-sewn mask then putting it around your face so it covers your nose and mouth will still be of some benefit.

Will wearing a mask make Dr Ashley Bloomfield happy?

Yes, yes it will. So do it!

Can I buy a mask with Dr Ashley Bloomfield’s face on it?

Not yet, but there’s bound to be one coming.


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