Study claims silk beats cotton as the best material for DIY face masks

Silk beats both cotton and synthetic materials like polyester when it comes to homemade and reusable face masks, according to a new study from the University of Cincinnati. The material offers a number of potential benefits, according to the researchers, including the fact that it is naturally antimicrobial due to its copper content. Face masks made from silk are likely to be perceived as more comfortable than synthetic and cotton alternatives, as well.

Though supplies have grown over the past few months, it can still be difficult to get ahold of disposable surgical masks and N95 respirators, both of which remain the most effective options for avoiding the spread of the novel coronavirus. For this reason, many have turned to fabric face masks, ones often made at home and from readily available cotton or synthetic fabrics.

However, the new study found that silk is superior to both of those materials, offering more comfort, a more effective barrier against moisture, reduced droplet penetration, and more. Using more than one layer of silk was found to increase the material's ability to repel and filter droplets one exhales when talking, sneezing, coughing, or simply breathing.

Silk, of course, comes from silkworms and silk moths, which are fed a diet that naturally imparts high levels of copper. This copper is then passed into the silk, lending it the compound's antimicrobial properties. Beyond that, silk is durable and can be washed multiple times, making it a suitable material for reusable masks that, according to the researchers, have a performance similar to surgical masks.

Unlike cotton, which traps moisture, silk is a thinner breathable material that dries quickly — something that would be ideal for masks which can build up moisture with prolonged use. The researchers suggest that silk masks could be used with N95 respirators by medical personnel as an alternative to surgical masks, which can't be washed and reused like silk.