Masks is a term that in recent weeks have been on everyone’s lips. By now, most households across the globe have them and we know they are going to be around for a while as we fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

We are reminded of the 1918 influenza pandemic and the one thing that stands out is masks. White blocks covering faces, in every photo or video they are there. We have also learnt from it and we are applying that today.

Since this pandemic has touched down in our beautiful country mask sales have gone crazy to such an extent that our medical and front line workers had critical low stock and that is when the latest fashion accessory came to life – fabric masks. Now every seamstress on the block is making them! But the questions on everybody’s lips are: Do they actually work. Well, let’s go back and check the facts.

Recently our President announced that as from 1 May it will be mandatory that everyone leaving their homes must wear a fabric face mask.

With this need of wearing cloth face masks there are a lot of questions about them on why wear them? Do they work? What materials work the best for them? Let’s have a look at the facts.


The Centre for Disease Control in the USA has recommended that every person wear a face mask, but research has shown that wearing a face mask does not protect the healthy person.


It is simple, actually. Although the debate is still ongoing on the effectiveness of wearing a face mask research confirms that the infected person’s contamination or infection rate has dropped significantly when wearing a mask than when not. The mask limits spreading the virus by air, decreasing the healthy person’s chances of being infected.

Some people may not show symptoms of having the virus and be totally unaware that they are infected but by wearing a mask they protect those around them being exposed to it.

The Acting-Director General, Dr Pillay, has issued guidelines on the wear and care of cloth face masks as the incorrect use of these masks might put the wearer as risk of spreading the Covid-19 virus and the consequences can be disastrous.

Basic care tips for cloth face masks include the following:

  • Only wear a cloth face mask that is washed and ironed. Why ironed? Research has shown that the Covid-19 virus cannot survive in extreme heat conditions. Ironing the face mask after the wash kills the virus and lowers the risk of infection to the wearer.
  • Always wash and disinfect your hands before and after handling the face mask.
  • Never touch the fabric part of the face mask that covers your face, only use the elastic or strings to handle the mask.
  • Masks should cover both your nose and mouth and should not be lowered when coughing or speaking.
  • Each person should have at least two cloth face mask so that you always have a clean alternative when disposing of one in the wash. Also make sure that you have a specific container for worn face masks to be washed. It prevents another person to accidentally wear a mask that has been worn and not washed again risking the spread of the virus.

In recent days US President Trump suggested that it would be perfectly fine for people to substitute fabric face masks with scarves but study has shown that scarves are the least effective in combating the spread of the virus. The study also indicated that the top fabrics to use for face masks were Denim, linen, paper towels and canvas.

Some even recommended coffee filters but science trumped that option right off the scale as it was found that it is difficult to breathe using them.

Scarves failed the test big time as their ineffective ability to trap the particles of the virus.

Even though cloth face masks have been popular overseas for many years they have only recently become a big thing here in South Africa.

Cloth face masks is the new craze and while so many businesses have been impacted negatively by the lockdown it seems like the mask industry is booming and everyone is now making them but due to the sudden need for masks there has not been sufficient time to really test the effectiveness of cloth masks and filters and therefore cloth masks should never be recommended to use as medical grade alternatives but rather for casual use as recommended by the Centre for Disease Control for those that does not require medical level protection like Doctors and front line staff.

Cloth face masks are not medical grade, their effectiveness is still being tested and judged on breathability and filtration, their but they are readily available in several designs and any colour imaginable and even patterned, printed on and in different designs.


The biggest difference between medical grade disposable masks and home made cloth or fabric masks is the filtration system.

The filtration system is what makes the medical grade mask so effective. The filtration system of modern medical grade or surgical masks are considered to be fibrous and are made from flat non-woven mats of fiber lines. This filtration system the fiber diameter  porosity (the ratio to open space to fibers) and the thickness of the fibers plays a role in how well the filter collects the particles.

The Centre for Disease Control and World Health Organization has however listed homemade masks as an alternative to those persons that do not work in providing healthcare services.


It is advisable to wear face masks when you are out and about in shops or public areas or when you use public transport to help protect you and those around you from respiratory infections like the Covid-19 virus.

Studies have shown that people who wore face masks, usually the medical grade ones, were less likely to be exposed to contracting respiratory viruses from casual exposure. The study also confirmed that in countries where people wore face masks like South Korea and Japan the spread of infections was much lower than countries that did not ask its citizens to wear them.

By wearing a cloth face mask you also limit exposing those around you when you cough and sneeze resulting in them less likely getting infected.  Studies have proven that if everyone in 1 household wore face masks the reduction in the infection rate was nearly 20%!

While cloth masks only offer a limited protection to the healthy person it plays a very important role in protecting those with vulnerable respiratory systems or vulnerable immune systems.

We need to remember that face masks alone cannot protect us and that they need to be used along with strict hygiene routines like frequently washing your hands, and maintaining a safe social distance from other people.


Where it might differ from design to design the basics are all the same but a very general rule is that a mask is less effective after it has been worn for 3 hours. You also need to ensure that you wash your hands properly for at least 20 seconds with a good soap and warm water and refrain from touching your face or the outer part of the mask at all times.

So in short we can conclude the following when wearing a face mask:

  • Prevention is better than cure: using a face mask early on can limit the rate at which the infection spread.
  • Get the necessary training – when the face mask is worn properly it can be effective.
  • Determine which mask fits properly – consider difference designs.
  • Practice good hygiene – handwashing is of outmost importance in fighting the spread of infections. Remember to refrain rom touching your face or the mask.
  • Duration – masks should be worn to be effective.

So, in conclusion, it does not matter what fabric your mask is made of, or how you decide to make it, without proper application and strict hygiene rules and practicing proper social distancing, no mask can be effective in limiting the spread of infections or guarantee to protect you against the Covid-19 virus.

And remember, by covering your face in public, you are helping others to stay safe from anything you may be carrying. It’s more about their protection than your own.