UWindsor research shows effectiveness of homemade masks

Masks made by The Windsor-Essex Sewing Force. (Courtesy WESF)

A Windsor research project says that certain simple two-ply cotton masks can be as, or more effective, than some surgical medical masks.

The project was led by Dr. Ken Drouillard of the University of Windsor’s Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research (GLIER) along with Drs Lisa Porter and Dora Cavallo-Medved of University of Windsor’s Health Sciences and Dr. Catherine Clase of McMaster Department of Medicine.

They worked in partnership with The Windsor Essex Sewing Force (WESF), a grass-roots organization made up of volunteer sewists that have produced thousands of evidence-based cloth masks for vulnerable groups in the area.

The research was funded by the University of Windsor’s Office of Research and Innovation and WE-SPARK Health Institute.

“The COVID-19 pandemic caused shortages for certified personal protective equipment (PPE) everywhere in our community,” says Drouillard. “When our local hospitals put out a call for homemade masks that could be used by visitors to the hospital, WESF partnered with GLIER to implement a testing and quality control program to optimize the production of high-quality homemade masks for donation to local healthcare institutions.”

Drouillard says they are very pleased with the results.

The results showed that the two-ply cotton masks that use ties to hold the mask to the face have a better fit than surgical style medical masks that use integrated ear loops.

Researchers say the better fit makes the performance of these masks equal to medical masks, a result that can allow people who follow the specifications when making masks to move confidently in public spaces.

The one caution the researchers have is that although they can stand behind the masks made by the WESF volunteers, not all homemade masks are made alike and they fully support moving towards better standards for cloth masks as is being proposed in new ASTM guidelines.

“This is really exciting for the WESF to be able to share with the community the research behind the high-quality masks safely given to vulnerable groups and healthcare workers,” says Rebecca Rudman, co-founder of the WESF. “To date, our group has provided over 50,000 masks to not only the healthcare sector, but also to vulnerable populations including seniors, low-income families, migrant works, at-risk children, and people with disabilities.

Rudman says they take great comfort in knowing that they were making the best masks possible to keep everyone safe.

“One reason this research is timely today is that many governments in western Europe are moving to ban cloth masks in public spaces,” adds Drouillard. “However, our research casts doubts about the legitimacy of such a policy.”

Drouillard says their research shows that cloth masks that follow specific standards are a safe option for the general public.

“One of the next steps is to look at how to educate our communities about what is needed to make a high quality cloth mask,” he says. “In a pandemic world, it’s important to make informed decisions - standardized medical masks and N95s are critical in many healthcare environments and workplaces and we now know that properly made cloth masks have a role to play in public spaces.”

Dr. Drouillard presented his research findings during a presentation on Oct. 6, 2021 and the work is currently undergoing peer review in the journal Plos One. The public can watch the recording here.