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Homemade N95 Respirator Mask Instructions (Using HEPA Vacuum Bag)

As I write this, the coronavirus pandemic is getting exponentially more widespread every day. In an effort to protect themselves from the virus, everyone wants a face mask, especially an N95 respirator which are said to provide the best protection against getting sick.

The problem is N95 respirators are now impossible to find. Read more about N95 Masks.

Luckily, it is possible to make your own respirator.  The key is using a HEPA vacuum cleaner bag as a filter.

Go straight to the instructions

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Why Make a DIY Respirator Mask?

Aside from the obvious reason that there are no N95 respirators left, here are some other reasons to make your own face respirator:

  • Get a better fit: Studies regularly show that respirator masks only work well if they have a tight fit. Most masks on the market don’t fit children well or people with beards.  If you do have an N95 mask and a beard, it’s time to shave!
  • Moral obligation: Using a DIY mask means N95 masks are available to healthcare workers who need them on the frontlines of a pandemic.
  • Provide for family and friends: In the Primal Survivor FB group for women, a lot of ladies talked about how they have “prepper’s guilt”; They had stockpiled supplies like N95 respirators for their family ahead of time, and now friends were asking for “donations.”  Instead of giving them respirators from your supply, you could make a mask for them.

Do Homemade Face Masks Actually Protect Against Viruses?

All sorts of instructions for DIY virus face masks have come up lately.  One of the most humorous ones I saw used a bra to make a mask.   Others utilize designs where you can put a tissue between two layers of fabric.

But do these DIY masks actually work?

Studies show that DIY masks do provide protection, but the protection is minimal. N95 respirators provide the most protection followed by surgical masks. DIY masks provided less protection than surgical masks. (Source)

Mask Material Matters!

In the studies which tested DIY face masks, materials like tea cloths or dish towels were used.  Not surprisingly, tea cloths allow a lot of airborne contaminants (including viruses) to pass through.

By contrast, some materials work much better for DIY respirators.  A 2006 guidebook by the Institute of Medicine and Committee on the Development of Reusable Facemasks for Use During an Influenza Pandemic addressed this.  While they are hesitant to recommend homemade masks because they might offer the wearer a false sense of security, they do say that:

The tighter the structure of the fabric, the better the potential for filtration… The level of protection offered also may be contingent on the tightness of the fit of the device to the wearer’s face.

For example, tests have found that tight-fitting six-layer gauze masks reduce contamination with tuberculosis bacilli by 90% to 95%. This is much more protection than you’d get wearing a mask made from a few layers of loose-fitting gauze.

Surgical masks provide the wearer very little protection against viruses because they are so loose-fitting.

The Takeaway?

Wearing any mask is better protection than no mask, but you’ll get better protection if you make a mask from the right material and size it for a tight fit.

Which Material is Best for Homemade Respirators?

N95 respirator masks are designed out of a non-woven material which can filter 95% of airborne contaminants of 0.3 microns or larger.  The coronavirus is approximately 0.120 microns (or 120nm) in diameter (Source).

So, it would seem that the coronavirus could just get through the mask.

However, the material in N95 respirators does NOT work like “sieve” filters.  Instead of catching large particles and allowing smaller ones to go through, N95 respirators actually work by tangling pathogens in their fibers.

As the IOM and Committee guidebook said,

“Respirator and medical mask filters are typically composed of mats of nonwoven fibrous materials, such as wool felt, fiberglass paper, or polypropylene. The material creates a tortuous path, and various mechanisms result in the adhesion of particles to the fibers without necessarily blocking the open spaces, still allowing air to flow easily across the filter.”

HEPA Material as an Alternative to N95 Masks

The material used to make HEPA vacuum bags has a lot of similar characteristics to N95 masks.

HEPA bags:

  • Remove 99.7% of airborne particles down to 0.3 microns which pass through them
  • Are made of a mat of randomly-arranged melt-blown fibers
  • Trap contaminants through diffusion, interception, and impaction

There obviously isn’t any data on how well a HEPA vacuum bag works for preventing viral infection, but HEPA bags do seem to be the best choice of material if you are going to make a homemade face mask.

How to Make a Respirator from a HEPA Vacuum Bag

While I’m not a sewing expert, I was able to make lots of DIY N95 masks out of HEPA vacuum bags.  Depending on the size of the bags and your face, you can get 2-3 masks per vacuum bag.

Important:

Don’t wear a HEPA vacuum bag directly against your skin.

HEPA vacuum bags have fiberglass threads inside of them. The fibers are large so aren’t dangerous like fiberglass dust.  However, you could still breathe them in, which could cause airway irritation (Source).

Kind of ironic if your face mask made you start coughing during the midst of coronavirus.

Instead, you must use the HEPA vacuum bag as a filter inside a cloth mask.

Materials

  • Fabric for the front of your mask, approximately 12×7 inches
  • Liner fabric for the back of the mask, also 12×7 inches
  • Elastic to secure the mask in place
  • HEPA vacuum bag – They are readily available on Amazon
  • A flat piece of flexible metal for the nose piece (optional but recommended)

Instructions

1. Cut Out Fabric

DIY respirator mask pattern

  • Iron your fabric first.
  • Print and cut out the pattern.  Get the pattern here (free PDF download). Make sure you print it to scale.
  • Fold your front fabric in half.  The back of the fabric should be facing outwards
  • Pin the mask pattern to the back of your fabric or trace it using pencil.
  • Cut out the fabric, making sure to LEAVE A ¼ INCH SEAM ALLOWANCE around the edges.
  • Repeat for the liner fabric

2. Cut HEPA bag

HEPA vacuum bag

  • Remove the cardboard portion from the bag
  • Trace or pin the HEPA pattern onto the bag
  • Cut out the bag. *You only need to leave a seam allowance for the center line (the curved line which will go vertical down the face)

3. Sew the Center Line

sewing DIY face mask viruses

Yes, I chose ridiculous fabric!

  • Line up your first two fabric pieces with the backside facing outwards
  • Pin the center line
  • Sew the center line with a ¼ inch seam allowance
  • Repeat for the liner fabric pieces.

4. Sew Front Fabric and Liner Fabric Together

  • Open the fabric pieces you just sew
  • Line up the fabric pieces so the backside is facing out and pin together
  • Sew the sides and top of the mask together using a ¼ inch seam allowance.  Do NOT sew the bottom side of the mask!  You will need it to be open to insert the filter.
  • When you are done, flip the mask so the fabric is right-side out

5. Sew and Insert HEPA Material

HEPA bag as a face mask filter

  • Sew the center line of the pieces of HEPA filter you cut out, leaving a ¼ inch seam allowance.  It’s probably best to do this by hand as it can snag on a sewing machine.
  • Insert the HEPA material between the inside and outside layers of the mask

6. Sew Bottom Edge of Mask

  • Turn ¼ inch of the bottom fabric under and pin in place.
  • The two bottom edges together.  I did this by hand using an overcast stitch

*If you want to make a “pocket mask” so you can remove the filter, you can instead close the bottom edge of the mask with tape.  I haven’t tried this though so am not sure whether the bulkiness of the tape would affect how snugly the mask fits around the face.   If anyone has advice on how to do a pocket mask, please let us know!

7. Attach Elastic

elastic strap on face mask

finished DIY face mask

*Most DIY face masks have elastic ear bands.  I find ear bands very uncomfortable.  They also make it impossible to get a snug fit on the mask. This method of attaching elastic works much better.

  • Fold over the side edges of the mask and sew them in place to make channels.
  • The fold should be at least as wide as you elastic.
  • Thread one long piece of elastic UP through the channel you just made. Then thread it DOWN through the channel on the opposite side.
  • Tie the elastic. You now have top and bottom straps.

8. Attach Metal Nose Piece

If you have a flexible piece of metal, you can sew or glue it to the top of the respirator.  This will provide a better fit so air doesn’t leak into the mask.

What to use as a nose piece: 

  • Pipe cleaners
  • Wire twisted in a loop and wrapped in duct tape (so it doesn’t scratch you/poke your eye out)
  • Stripped down copper wire
  • Grocery store twist ties
  • The metal closures on coffee bags
  • Metal strip on manila envelopes
  • Paper clip, with ends sanded down
  • Metal pie tin, folded so no sharp edges are exposed
  • Piece of a soda can, with edges sanded or hammered down so they aren’t sharp
  • The underwire of a bra

Reusing Homemade Respirators during a Viral Pandemic

N95 respirators are supposed to be disposable.  However, even the CDC acknowledges that they may have to be reused when in short supply.  If you need to reuse an N95 respirator (or your DIY respirator), follow these guidelines:

  • Wash your hands before and after putting on the respirator or adjusting it. Or use hand sanitizer if you can’t wash your hands.
  • Avoid touching inside the respirator.
  • Don’t try to disinfect respirators. Disinfectants like alcohol and bleach can damage the respirator’s structural integrity. This also applies to HEPA vacuum bags.
  • When not using the respirator, store in a breathable bag. Paper bags work for this.
  • Have enough respirators for at least 4 days. The coronavirus can live on surfaces for 3 days.  If you make enough respirators for 4 days, then you can cycle through respirators.  For example, if you go out 2x per day, you’ll want to have 6 masks so you have enough for each outing over 4 days.

Cleaning a Homemade Respirator Mask

Can you wash this mask? The short answer is I don’t know.  HEPA vacuum bags are designed to be disposable and there haven’t been any tests about what happens to the filter medium when washed.

However, there were studies which  tested methods of cleaning N95 respirators.  It found that: An autoclave, 160°C dry heat, 70% isopropyl alcohol, bleach, and soap and water (20-min soak) caused significant degradation to filtration efficiency.

Because of this, I do NOT recommend cleaning/washing the HEPA filter medium.  Instead, cycle through the masks as talked about in the section above.

If you are worried about keeping the exterior fabric clean,  you could wear a shield of bandana over the mask.  Or, if you are crafty, turn this design into a “pocket mask” so the filter can be removed and the fabric portion cleaned.   Remember the filter will still have to be set aside for at least 3 days so any viruses on it have time to die off.

Disclaimer:

I’m not a doctor or an epidemiologist.  I can’t guarantee that this DIY respirator will protect you from any virus.  However, the research has shown that any mask is better than no mask.  Based on what I know about HEPA materials, it seems to be the best filter for a DIY mask- certainly better than the tissues being used in many DIY masks!

Have you made your own N95 mask? Tell us about it in the comments.

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Leave a comment

    • Please read the last section in the article. It talks about reusing N95 masks. The same applies to HEPA masks. I would recommend putting a mask in “quarantine” for at least 3 days before you wear it again.

      Reply
    • The hepa filters should be changed out after daily use,to make a pocket you would turn the ends of the liner in 1/2″ hem .so you would be leaving the ends of the liner opened.then you would hem the ends 1/4 ” seam allowance attaching the top and bottom of the liner fabric,also you can lay your wire on top as usual, zigzag it in the top.I have begun using ties instead of elastic they fit tighter and will fit most.for the ties use a clean sanitized tshirt and cut strips about 3/4″ by the length you need,it stretches so you can do that first before hand,you can put it thru the same way as you would elastic.I like putting a longer piece thru the top then thru your ends ,then you have only 2 ends to tie,instead if 4.

      Reply
      • Good suggestions – thank you! Ties do give a tighter fit and are better if you are wearing the mask for a long time. I personally prefer elastic though because it requires less touching to remove (would have to touch the back of my head/hair to remove ties).

        Reply
  1. Does sewing (especially down the front in front of your nose and mouth) introduce holes from the needle that the virus can get right through? Could use fusible tape instead?

    Reply
    • If were were just talking about the fabric mask, then yes. But it doesn’t seem to introduce holes with the HEPA material. Here’s why: The material is kind of fluffy. With at least a 1/4 inch seam allowance, the material folds over on itself and closes any holes. HEPA tangles pathogens rather than acting like a sieve, so it should be okay. I’m not saying 100% that there aren’t holes where viruses can enter though. This is simply the best DIY option available.

      Reply
    • Hi there,
      I used some tape that activates when you apply heat from an iron. My filters are only about 2 inches square, I’m lucky enough to have a few 3D printers and have printed my own set of masks.

      Reply
    • The hepa filters should be changed out after daily use,to make a pocket you would turn the ends of the liner in 1/2″ hem .so you would be leaving the ends of the liner opened.then you would hem the ends 1/4 ” seam allowance attaching the top and bottom of the liner fabric,also you can lay your wire on top as usual, zigzag it in the top.I have begun using ties instead of elastic they fit tighter and will fit most.for the ties use a clean sanitized tshirt and cut strips about 3/4″ by the length you need,it stretches so you can do that first before hand,you can put it thru the same way as you would elastic.I like putting a longer piece thru the top then thru your ends ,then you have only 2 ends to tie,instead if 4.using the hepa bag filters this way also prevents chances of holes.

      Reply
    • Here are some ideas: The metal clasps on manilla envelopes, bobby pins, pipe cleaners (might have to twist a bunch of them together to make it strong enough), wire wrapped in duct tape so it doesn’t poke you in the face, the metal closures on coffee bags, the underwire from a bra… Or you could just use medical tape to tape the mask to your face.

      Reply
      • Yes — great idea. I’d wrap the ends in duct tape or put a drop of hot glue on the ends so you don’t end up scratching your face with it or poking your eye.

        Reply
    • I have also seen people use aluminum from the baking pans…like the ones that people use for Thanksgiving, cut a piece…lik 2X1 in. and then fold it over itself around the edges to prevent sharp edges. Many machines will sew thru this and you can sew it into the top seam of your masks. However, I have heard that if you reuse masks, after several washings and wearings that it will break. SO…depends on how long you want the mask to last. If it is single use or just a few time, it should be ok, otherwise, many are using paperclips, unfolding them and bending the ends so that there are no sharp edges. (Some even put a drop of hot glue on the bended ends to make sure nothing breaks thru the masks.

      Reply
    • I purchased garbage bag twist ties on Amazon. They are 7 inches long. I cut them in half. You can get 100 ties for around $15 which makes 200 masks. The twist ties has 2 pieces of metal between plastic. Very stiff and easy to use. I zig zag over it.

      Reply
  2. Could these be pasteurized to sterilize them? Maybe put them in the oven at 175 degrees F for 15 minutes to be sure? I dont think that temperature would harm the elastic.

    Reply
    • Please note these instructions are for DIY masks to be used as a last resort when all other options are exhausted. We have no scientific data to validate their effectiveness. Similarly we cannot be sure that the above would sterilize the masks or be in any way effective.

      Reply
  3. Hello primal survivor! I found a video online titled ‘A Doctor explains how to make the safest face mask’ – A lot of people knocked on the video mentioning the fiberglass as mentioned in your article. Can you please have a look at the video and let me know if the way they are stitching it together would a safe alternative. I’m looking to make these for me and my coworkers (respiratory therapist, nurses). Any advice would help. I just don’t want to make something that would be considered “directly putting a vacuum bag to your face.” Though I do see their vacuum masks have some sort of thin sheet to them. Please, any advice helps.

    Reply
    • Hi Julio, thank you for the work you are doing in these grim times. We cannot comment on any other design for obvious reasons. However you definitely do not want the vacuum bag touching your face for the reasons you stated and it is also discussed in this article.

      Also just to reiterate – “these instructions are for DIY masks to be used as a last resort when all other options are exhausted. We have no scientific data to validate their effectiveness.”

      Reply
  4. Could i just sew around an existing new medical mask so i alrdy have the elastic bands and shape of the mask and what not?

    Reply
    • By ‘medical mask,” do you mean a surgical mask? Surgical masks are made to fit very loosely, so don’t provide the wearer with protection against viruses (they do help protect the people around you if you happen to be sick and don’t know it though!).

      Reply
  5. My husband and I use to milk cows. The strainer material might be used as a filter. The box says the filtration range is 35-50 microns. Would using that help? Obviously it would not shred if it was washed (at least for a few times)

    Reply
    • 35 microns is actually quite large. To put it in perspective, water droplets (like from a sneeze) are around 5 microns. Coronavirus is 0.12 microns. It doesn’t sound like it would be a good filter material. Obviously better than nothing, but the CDC warns against face masks like these because they might provide wearers with a false sense of security.

      Reply
    • The pattern doesn’t include the 1/4 inch seam allowance, so you should add 1/4″ all around. I actually used a larger seam allowance since I was sewing by hand and suck at keeping my stitches straight!

      Reply
  6. Can this be washed in a washer or hand washed? If you’re wearing it all day at work (hospital), then it will get really gross. Just leaving it alone for a few days isn’t going to fix the gross factor, even if the virus is gone by that point. Can HEPA filters get wet and still work?

    Reply
    • No, you *probably* can’t wash the HEPA material. It could damage it’s ability to capture viruses.

      *There is this study https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2781738/ which found that alcohol, bleach, and even soap + water degraded respirators. Would plain water be okay? I don’t know.

      If I was craftier, I would have figured out a way to make a “pocket mask” – one where you can remove the HEPA material and wash the fabric mask. I guess it could be done by closing the bottom with fabric tape instead of sewing it shut. However, I’m a bit worried that the fabric tape would be bulky and thus the mask wouldn’t fit snug against the face. If anyone figures out how to make a pocket mask with HEPA bags, please let us know!

      Another solution to keep the fabric portion of the mask clean:
      Wear a surgical mask, shield, or bandana on top of the mask. This will prevent the exterior from getting gross.

      Reply
  7. Good and clear instructions.
    In my DIYing, I’ve used automotive engine air filters as an insert or as part of the mask itself, using tape (duct, BION) for construction.
    Also, for an airtight fit, seal the edge of the mask with “boob tape”, or surgical silk tape, to the face. Sounds like overkill, maybe, but I’m also considering the sick person, who should wear a mask unless it restricts his breathing, and the caretaker who should wear a mask, as well as gloves, etc. Maybe one doesn’t need a sealed mask to visit the grocery store.
    Email directly for details.

    Reply
  8. ” were converted to be non-infectious after 90-, 60- and 30-min exposure at 56 degrees C, at 67 degrees C and at 75 degrees C, respectively.”Stability of SARS coronavirus in human specimens and environment and its sensitivity to heating and UV irradiation.

    Reply
    • You’ll need about 20-25inches of elastic per mask depending on how big your head is. I threaded a long piece of elastic through the mask, put it on, pulled the elastic tight so it got a snug fit, tied the elastic, and then cut off the excess. *Tip: Use a longer piece of elastic than you think you’ll need and tie it loosely so you can retie it later if it isn’t tight enough.

      Reply
    • I couldn’t find any reliable info on whether washing damages HEPA material. Based on studies about N95 respirators, it seems that washing by hand with plain water would clean the mask. Again, this hasn’t been tested so I’d play it safe and not wash them. As for disinfecting, you can leave the masks in a breathable bag (like a paper bag) for several days so any viruses have time to die before you put the mask back on.

      Reply
  9. So would any type of non woven material work if vacuum bags not available. I have an embroidery sewing business and use non woven stabilizer for backing knits when adding logos. Would this type of non-woven fabric work in a pinch?

    Reply
    • I choose HEPA vacuum bags because they have actually been tested to filter down to 0.3 microns. In theory, any non-woven material would be better than woven materials (it’s going to depend on how tightly woven the material is, the size of the non-woven fibers, etc. though).

      Note “better” does NOT mean safe. At this point, even the CDC is telling people they can use a bandana instead of a respirator as a last resort when masks aren’t available. But, I repeat: Better than nothing does not mean safe! It’s sad that we’ve gotten to this point.

      Reply
    • If you want to be very precise, you can take a measuring tape and hold it at the top of your nose and run it down to right below your chin. Make sure you leave it a bit loose since you won’t want a mask pressing flat against your face. This is the length of the center line of your mask.

      You can also check the sizing after sewing the center line by holding it up against your face. If it is too big/small, you can adjust it then before sewing the rest of the mask.

      Reply
  10. Could you please tell me the name of the vacuum bags you used? I went in amazon and there are many different ones and I’m not sure which is best. Thank you.

    Reply
    • So long as they are HEPA bags (not “HEPA like” or some other knockoff), it will be fine. I am in Europe so the bags I used were probably different than what you can get in the states. Mine were by Hoover though.

      Reply
  11. since the filter material is pocketed between non-filtering layers, won’t the viri simply bypass around the edges? the cloth layers are like an open superhighway to a virus, and because they offer lower air resistance, inhaling should force them to take that path.

    Reply
    • The interior filter layer is large enough that it surrounds the entire mouth and nose area and is held tightly against the face. Again, I’m not guaranteeing that no viruses won’t make it through but the ones I made have a good fit and cover the face well.

      Reply
    • I thought about that too but I’m worried that the Velcro will be too thick; it would make the mask bulky at the bottom so it wouldn’t fit well on the bottom of the face. Also, I only have really thick Velcro at my home now and am not going out to buy any! 🙂 If you try it and it works, please let us know!

      Reply
    • I was considering sewing small snaps into the bottom to keep it closed. They aren’t bulky and should not interfere with the mask’s fit.

      Reply
      • That’s a smart idea. I wish I’d stockpiled my sewing kit better before all this broke out. Apparently a lot of places are running out of elastic because of how many people are making their own masks. It just goes to show it’s impossible to imagine and prep for every possible scenario! 😀

        Reply
  12. I am preparing to make a face mask according to your directions. It will be a pocket mask using the vacuum bag Hepa Filter paper. I have a sterilizer box that I use to clean my CPAP machine. The device operates using UV light and ozone. It claims to be 99.99% effective against bacteria and viruses. I can sterilize two mask at a time in this box over a 15 to 20 minute time frame. I plan to wash them in a soap and chlorox solution as needed. I will remove the Hepa Filter before washing.

    Reply
    • If it is certified HEPA, then it should work. I’m not familiar with furnace filters though. Apparently some people are using automotive filters (which I”m also not familiar with but would be worth looking into).

      Reply
  13. Questions:

    1) Do I use both layers of the HEPA filter bag, or is just one layer enough?

    2) What do you think about putting the HEPA filter between a couple of stretchy “balaclava” type masks as another alternative?

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • 1) Just one layer of HEPA material is enough. If you used two, it would probably be difficult to breathe. I trace the pattern on the vacuum bag while it is still closed and then cut. This gives me two equal-sized pieces: one for the left and one for the right side.
      2) I’m sure it *could* work. The issue is how you would make sure the HEPA material is actually covering your nose and mouth. I guess you could use a very large piece of HEPA material sandwiched between two pieces of fabrics (like balaclavas) and then tie it all the way around your face.

      Reply
  14. I read that you should not use pins in the fabric as this causes big holes which is what you don’t want in a face mask. Your thoughts?

    Reply
    • With this design, the pins are going around the fabric edges. The fabric portion isn’t stopping pathogens from going through; it’s the HEPA filter inside. The HEPA material goes close to the edges and is still pressed tightly against the face, so *should* provide protection

      The HEPA material does get sewn down the center line and is pinned, but it is fluffy so it kind of overlaps on itself and thus the pinholes don’t seem to be a problem. Remember HEPA filters work because they don’t give pathogens a straight path through the material; the pathogens get tangled in the fibers).

      *Again, I’m not guaranteeing that this will work. However, I do believe that using a HEPA filter inside a cloth masks is a heck of a lot better than using just a cloth mask or surgical mask.

      Reply

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