Why Wear a Cloth Mask?

by MaryBeth Stuenkel, SustainableQATAR

Why wear a face mask at all?

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, increasing again in countries and states where cases had been declining, guidance continues to evolve around how to stay safe and healthy. The latest guidance from the World Health Organization (WHO) includes a recommendation for all people in all countries to wear cloth face masks whenever they leave their home.

“But wait,” you say, “I thought they said face masks are not important unless you are in a health care role.” Well, the thing is that this coronavirus is new (that’s why it’s called the novel coronavirus), so scientists and practitioners are learning new things about it every day. The original advice about mask wearing centered around the ability for face masks to protect the wearer from the virus, but it was learned that regular masks were not very good at it. Scientists are learning more about how the virus is spread in the air. While face masks are only minimally effective at protecting the wearer, they are very effective at protecting other people when the wearer is infected, whether they know they are or not, because the mask keeps the wearer’s saliva droplets inside and away from those around them.

Take this stunning pair of reports as examples. In the US in March 2020, choir members attended a rehearsal where none of the choir members felt sick and hand sanitizer was offered at the door. Three weeks later, three quarters of the 60 attendees had become sick. Two members died. Now consider the second report. In May 2020, two hairstylists in a US beauty salon were found to have COVID-19. They had served 140 clients in the salon with seven other stylists, not knowing they were infectious. The clients and the stylists all wore face coverings. After the 14-day incubation time, not a single one of them was found to be infected.

While shifting advice and contradictory guidelines may seem confusing, this is to be expected in this novel situation we find ourselves in. We are clearly doing our fellow Qatar citizens and residents a favor by wearing a face mask whenever we leave our homes.

But why cloth?

Hopefully we all understand that wearing a face mask is a good idea. The question then becomes “Why should I wear a cloth face mask here in Qatar when paper masks are in good supply and easily obtainable?”

There are lots of reasons and here I’ll present two sets of three.

Three ways cloth masks are more sustainable

  1. Cloth masks save resources

Cloth masks can be made from fabric that has outlived its original use. SustainableQATAR, in collaboration with the Army of Masks Qatar, initiated the “Share a Thobe” campaign. Together we have collected over 200 used thobes, along with a number of used jalabiyas, men’s shirts, and high-quality sheets. The upcycling of cast-off clothing ensures that the energy and other environmental resources that went into creating the fabric is given a new use. It is extending the life of those materials, thereby minimizing the environmental impact of creating them in the first place.

  1. Cloth masks reduce waste

Making cloth masks from used clothing prevents these clothes from being sent to a landfill. But even more importantly, using cloth masks reduces the waste caused by throwing away single-use paper masks. Instead of wearing and discarding dozens of paper masks, a single cloth mask can be washed and reused over and over.

  1. Cloth masks protect the environment

In addition to protecting anyone an infected person comes in contact with, cloth masks protect the environment by reducing the waste entering our oceans. The amount of plastic waste entering our oceans has increased due to the amount of disposable masks, sanitizer bottles, and gloves. While the amount is not currently enormous, Laurent Lombard of Opération Mer Propre reported on social media “… soon we’ll run the risk of having more masks than jellyfish in the Mediterranean.”

Three more reasons to use cloth masks

  1. Cloth masks save money

Cloth masks can be used, laundered, and reused over and over. You no longer need to regularly purchase a new supply. If your cloth mask was made from used clothing, the cost of materials is close to zero. Now, that’s saving money!

  1. Cloth masks are more comfortable

Instead of scratchy, irritating paper/plastic material near your skin, you can enjoy the softness of 100% cotton. Wearing a mask no longer becomes something you want to minimize because of the discomfort, but rather something that becomes a comfortable, easy choice.

  1. Cloth masks are more stylish

By using fun fabrics, or repurposing your favorite old clothes for a mask, you can make a statement, show your style, or just have fun. The sky’s the limit. You’ll never want to wear a paper mask again.

One last thing and a call to action

The WHO recommendation for wearing cloth masks comes with a set of guidelines about what they should be made from. It turns out that the most effective masks are made from 3 layers of different fabrics, as different fabrics have different virus-repelling properties, making a combination of materials very effective. Thobes also are made of different fabrics, from 100% cotton, to polyester, to wool, to blends. By combining fabric from multiple thobes, we can maximize the protective value of the resulting masks. 

SustainableQATAR has so far collected over 200 thobes and other used fabric. The Army of Masks Qatar organizes and supports using this fabric to cut and sew masks. Army of Mask volunteers have currently made over 300 masks from thobes, either completely, or in combination with other fabric. They are in urgent need of volunteers to separate thobes into pieces of fabric, cut mask pieces from patterns, and sew masks. If you are interested in helping, please contact jill@armyofmasks.com

Thank you for helping to make Qatar a safer and more sustainable place, one person at a time.


Photo by Vera Davidova on Unsplash