Simple rubber band trick turns regular face masks into homemade N95 respirators

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — When it comes to personal protective equipment against COVID-19, no mask beats the N95 respirator. Considered the gold standard of facial viral protection by doctors and scientists alike, the N95 has been notoriously hard to produce and obtain in comparison to standard surgical masks throughout the pandemic.

Now, however, researchers from the University of Michigan report that all you need to attain roughly the same level of protection against viral particle exposure with a surgical mask is some rubber bands and a little bit of ingenuity.

To achieve N95-level protection, a mask must reach a minimum score of 100 on a standardized battery of tests, referred to as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s passing threshold. This assessment gauges how well a mask guards against the passage of particles that may expose an individual to disease. Normally, a standard surgical mask doesn’t offer the same level of robust protection because it doesn’t seal around the wearer’s face. This means particles can potentially bypass the filter around its edges.

Study authors, led by a Michigan Medicine surgeon, collaborated with 40 health care workers to analyze and test out a standard surgical mask modified with two eight-inch rubber bands placed over the crown of the wearer’s head, bridge of the nose, around the cheeks, and under the chin.

3 in 4 people successfully made a ‘homemade’ N95 mask

Overall, 31 participants (78%) crafted modified masks that passed the fit test with a score greater than 100. The average score among passing masks was 151, which is a notably better grade than the 3.8 score unmodified surgical masks receive. However, that average score is still lower than a properly fitted N95 mask, which receives a 199.

It’s important to note that by the final day of the study all of the modified masks passed the targeted N95 threshold, suggesting that more rubber banding practice improves both fit and performance.

According to senior study author Jaimo Ahn, M.D., Ph.D., FACS, professor of orthopedic surgery at University of Michigan Medical School, this easily applicable mask hack can help address N95 respirator shortages on a worldwide scale.

“While not a vaccine, this approach emphasizes prevention rather than treatment,” Dr. Ahn says in a university release. “While not sophisticated, it has the potential to save lives and preserve wellness. Its effect will last as long as there are respiratory diseases and PPE demand exceeds supply. It is immediately impactful and sustainable, yet simple and cheap.”

The study is published in PLoS ONE.

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