DIY Masks: Is Paper Towel Effective at Blocking Viruses?

Paper towel test at capturing virus-sized particles

In a recent study, researchers tested household materials that could be used to make DIY masks, but they left out one common material—paper towel (also called “kitchen paper”). Could paper towel be an effective material for making homemade masks in times of crisis and shortages? Smart Air Engineer Paddy tested its effectiveness in the Smart Air test lab in Beijing.

DIY mask test of paper towel effectiveness

 

Putting Paper Towel to The Test

Paddy used a Met One particle counter to test how well a single and double layer of paper towel filtered out particles down to 0.3 microns. Paddy ran the Met One for one minute, measuring the total number of particles passing through the paper towel versus the same setup with no filter.

Paper towel test at capturing virus-sized particles

 

How Big Are Viruses?

Just how small is 0.3 microns compared to viruses? The coronavirus measures approximately 0.1 microns in diameter, so 3 times smaller than measured in our test. However, 0.3 microns is an important size to test, because 0.3 micron particles are the most difficult to capture.

Particle Sizes - Virus Labelled

The crazy reality is that particles smaller than 0.3 microns are actually easier to capture. Don’t believe us; believe the data. Here’s the science behind it »

Paper Towel Particle Capture

The results weren’t great. A single layer of kitchen paper captured just 23% particles. Adding an extra layer only increased particle capture to 33%.

Paper Towel Mask Particle Capture Effectiveness Microns

For larger 2.5 micron particles, paper towel performed better. The single layer of kitchen paper captured 52% of these larger particles.

Do Kitchen Paper Masks Fit Tight?

One thing this test doesn’t cover is fit effectiveness–how leaky a DIY mask would be. Not surprisingly, masks that fit better will let fewer particles in. That’s one of the reasons why surgical masks score lower on fit tests than N95 masks.

 

UMass Surgical Mask Study Virus EN

Yet Studies Find Mask Leakage Has Small Effect on Flu Virus Transmission

Although surgical masks (and presumably DIY masks) are more leaky than N95 masks, randomized studies that have tracked infection rates have found that surgical masks are just as effective as N95 masks at preventing the transmission of viruses. Researchers don’t know the exact reason for this. However, some scientists hypothesize that masks help, in part, because they prevent us from touching our face. That helps keeps us from “planting” viruses our mouth, nose, and eyes.

reduction in hand to face contact effect mask preventing virus transmission

Bottom line: Paper towel captured fewer particles than other DIY mask materials tested by researchers at Cambridge. However, if it is the only material you have, it is better than nothing.


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Kev

Greetings ! Great article!
One question , what if i use three to four Layers of paper towels?

Hi, I wanted to follow up on a post I left some time ago (can’t find it now). I’m making masks from a material that is similar to kitchen paper towels, except it’s more industrial grade. Comes in a roll without perforations. 4 ply with a nylon scrim for strength. The material is very tough and doesn’t fall apart easily even if wet. In this prototype I’ve used two layers of it and I’m using a thin copper wire over the bridge of the nose to easily achieve a tight fit. The material is available under a variety of brand… Read more »

Becki

I read the article about paper towels not being very effective. I wonder about the bamboo reusable paper towels? They appear to be substantially thicker/denser.

Sharon

I would like to know the answer to this question too. I have some rolls of Bambooee Un-paper towels. They can be washed up to 100 times each. I was wondering if they would work as a filter in homemade face masks.

kristal

Hi, anyone done any research that 100% natural cotton batting (used for quilting) is effective as a filter in mask?

Jan

I made masks from a tea towel and used a layer of allergy mattress protector inside – just because it was all I had