A recent study undertaken by the University of Cincinnati found homemade silk face masks to be the next best alternative to single-use N95 surgical masks for fighting COVID-19.
In midst of a pandemic where PPEs have been in shortage, settling with an equally effective homemade alternative is imperative to save lives.
Researchers at the University of Cincinnati were curious to find what common household fabrics could work successfully as a face covering in replacement for the professional equipment to battle the novel virus.
Turned out, a by-product of a tiny hardworking caterpillar has some powerful components and qualities incorporated into it, so much that it can even prevent COVID-19.
This is in contrast to CDC that says: “Use tightly woven cotton, such as quilting fabric or cotton sheets. T-shirt fabric will work in a pinch,” about homemade masks.
The moisture-repellant, soft and breathable nature of the natural fabric silk makes it a promising candidate to fight an airborne virus, researchers at the University of Cincinnati found, according to Science Daily.
Silk is also antimicrobial, antibacterial, and antiviral, thanks to the presence of copper in it, all of which makes the COVID-19 hard to trespass the layers, when worn as a mask.
Studies have already shown how copper acts as a powerful armor that can kill viruses and bacteria on contact, and the silk made by caterpillars exactly has this incorporated into it, naturally.
“Copper is the big craze now. Silk has copper in it. Domesticated silk moths eat mulberry leaves. They incorporate copper from their diet into the silk,” said Patrick Guerra, assistant professor of biology at UC’s College of Arts and Sciences.
Viruses like the novel SARS-CoVI-2 spread via respiratory droplets expelled while talking, coughing, and sneezing.
Face masks work by essentially creating a barrier between the expelled microdroplets potentially laden with the virus and the person’s mouth and nose.
Researchers at UC put multiple types of silk, cotton, and polyester fabrics to test the capacity to ward off moisture in a lab setting using water droplets, representing the respiratory droplets of the real-life.
The better the moisture repellant capacity of a fabric, the better the chance to repel the virus. Researchers found, silk was way better in repelling moisture than both polyester and cotton, which quickly absorbed the water.
The researchers concluded, silk worked similarly like a surgical mask with a respirator with the added benefit of being washable and repelling water, both important to keep an airborne virus like COVID-19 at bay.
Guerra said with their research they’re trying to address the critical problem of PPE shortage for healthcare workers, especially basic surgical masks and N95 respirators.
“The ongoing hypothesis is that coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets,” Guerra said.
“If you wore layers of silk, it would prevent the droplets from penetrating and from being absorbed. Recent work by other researchers also found that increasing layers of silk improves filtration efficiency. This means that silk material can repel and filter droplets. And this function improves with the number of layers.”
The study was published this month in the journal Plos One.
Nature has its ways
In nature, silk spun by the silkworms works on similar principals to keep a caterpillar happy until it emerges as a beautiful and fuzzy moth or butterfly.
The silk that caterpillars spin acts as a protective shelter for them while they undergo the cycle of change, and keep them warm and moist inside preventing moisture leakage.
Patrick Guerra is now working to find out how long does COVID-19 survive on silk.
Homemade face masks have been encouraged by governments around the world in the wake of Personal Protective Equipment shortage.
Public advice by healthcare authorities like CDC and WHO argues using layers and snug-fit homemade masks will keep the limited stocks of PPE available for frontline healthcare workers who need them the most.
In India, a homemade layered cotton mask for unaffected and healthy people was encouraged by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to ward off the virus.