Are Paper Towel Masks 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 masks (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 Beijing lab.

 

DIY mask test of paper towel effectiveness

 

Putting Paper Towel Masks to The Test

 

Paddy used a Met One GT-521S 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 kitchen paper 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? On average, coronavirus particles measure 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.

Update: new data on paper towel masks – we’ve published new data on the effectiveness of paper towels in our Ultimate Guide to DIY masks article. This uses a new and improved testing method, which shows paper towels are more effective than originally thought!

Learn more: The Ultimate Guide to DIY Face Mask Materials →

 

Do Paper Towel 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.

 

N95 vs surgical mask flu infection study

 

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 masks captured 23% of 0.3 micron particles, which is less 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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