Home-made origami face masks may fit better than commercial ones, study suggests

Stephen Chen in Beijing, South China Morning Post

Posted at Oct 01 2020 02:02 PM

* US scientists say the paper-folding technique can be used to make a simple mask that potentially has a better seal than surgical or N95 masks
* Their study, which has not been peer-reviewed, tested the filtering capacity of common materials ranging from kitchen wipes to reusable shopping bags

Anyone can make their own origami face mask and it may potentially be better at blocking microscopic coronavirus particles than commercially available ones, a new study suggests.

The paper-folding technique could be used to turn widely available materials such as furnace filters into masks that fit better than surgical or N95 masks, according to lab tests carried out by scientists at the University of California, Irvine.

A better fit means better protection – the filtration rate of commercial masks can be reduced to just 20 per cent if they do not fit properly. But the scientists found that their origami mask was still 60 to 70 per cent effective in stopping the spread of airborne disease even when worn loosely.

“We have designed a mask that can be produced with minimal cost and labour that optimises filtration efficiency and ease of breathing,” the team led by chemistry professor James Smith wrote in a paper posted on preprint server medRxiv.org on Tuesday, meaning it has not been peer-reviewed.

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There have been global mask shortages during the coronavirus pandemic, and as a result many people have turned to home-made ones – including origami masks. But whether they can provide adequate protection is not clear and depends on many factors, from the materials used to the fit of the mask.

The paper-folding art can be complex, so Smith’s team came up with a six-step design that anyone could recreate in 10 minutes using just a pair of elastic straps, some wire, a stapler and a square of filter material.

They tested the origami masks on a mannequin that was placed in a chamber filled with tracing particles, and all performed well when there was a perfect seal around the face.

But that seal was not so easily achieved with commercial masks, according to the researchers. In tests simulating actual wearing conditions, they found that the ear loops of commercial masks often failed to press the mask to the face sufficiently, which could result in significant leakage. This was less of a problem with the origami masks.

The study tested the filtering capacity of common household materials ranging from kitchen wipes to reusable shopping bags. While the effectiveness ranged significantly, the performance of the materials increased substantially when used in double or triple layers.

Smith and his colleagues concluded that folded masks had the potential for widespread use in helping to stop the spread of the virus.

“Our goal is to design an affordable mask that does not require sewing, combines high filtration efficiency with ease of breathing, minimises leakage that can dramatically reduce overall mask performance, and provides greater comfort compared to some commercial alternatives – thereby promoting mask-wearing tolerance and acceptance,” the researchers said.

“While our design is ideal for general public use, we also envision its use by at-risk, public-facing workers, including emergency services personnel, workers employed in aged care, childcare or education, cleaners, those in the hospitality industry, and public transport and taxi drivers, and frontline health care workers,” they added.

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