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Faced with mask shortages, some look for DIY alternatives

(Amber Oh's Instagram account)
(Amber Oh's Instagram account)

Demand for face masks and hand sanitizers has been going through the roof, as the number of COVID-19 infections continues to surge here, prompting some customers to take matters into their own hands -- with DIY hygiene products.

A vast majority of pharmacies, retail stores and online shopping malls have sold out of masks and hand sanitizer, while the stock available on the market often comes at a hefty price, as the most sought-after necessities amid the virus outbreak.

“As you may well know, masks are sold at an extremely high price due to scarcity, not to mention that these expensive masks are not available for purchase. So I started to look for an alternative,” Yang Bo-sang, 44, told The Korea Herald.

Yang, a father to two daughters in Seoul, has named his handmade mask “BS70,” incorporating his initials.

Yang Bo-sang's handmade mask
Yang Bo-sang's handmade mask "BS70" includes a white nonwoven fabric inside a navy colored cotton mask to boost virus prevention. (Yang Bo-sang)

After rigorous searching online, Yang came across information that nonwoven fabric functions as a filter, then ultimately crafted cotton masks with nonwoven fabric added inside.

According to Statistics Korea, disposable masks are selling online at over 4,000 won ($3.30) per unit. In contrast, the total cost of one of Yang’s handmade masks comes down to approximately 1,010 won.

“In terms of quality, handmade masks can’t be compared to ones sold in the market, but they are the closest I can get to KF (government-certified) masks with filtration capabilities,” Yang said.

The government has stepped into settle issues related to supply and demand of sanitizer and masks, limiting mask exports and requiring manufacturers to supply at least 50 percent of their daily production to state-run or public retailers, as stipulated under Article 6 of the Price Stabilization Act.

Echoing Yang, 35-year-old Amber Oh, who lives in South Chungcheong Province, has also opted for handmade masks.

“Given the current circumstance, it’s difficult to find masks and they are expensive. Within the best of my abilities, I decided to make my own masks,” Oh told The Korea Herald.

“After it came to my attention that the effectiveness of standard masks and ones I make by hand are equivalent, because virus particles are ultrafine, I didn’t feel the need to buy masks. I thought it would be more efficient to make a few, and wash and reuse them.”

Oh added that her husband, parents and brother’s family are currently using handmade reusable face masks.

Amid a mask shortage, volunteer groups and the Saemaul Women’s Association on Jeju Island distributed 100,000 handmade disposable face masks of paper towels and yellow rubber bands earlier this month, the local government said.

Handmade disposable face masks made by volunteer groups and the Saemaul Women's Association of Jeju earlier this month. (Jeju Island)
Handmade disposable face masks made by volunteer groups and the Saemaul Women's Association of Jeju earlier this month. (Jeju Island)

“We have made masks using paper towels, for one-time use. Though it is not as effective as surgical masks it is better to wear one than to not have one with you,” a Jeju official said.

An association of pharmacists on Jeju Island and local health officials distributed step-by-step procedures to make hand sanitizer, as well as the ingredients for 20,000 units of the hand sanitizer.

Experts, however, are divided on the effectiveness of handmade masks, with the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention taking a more cautious approach.

“We should wear a mask to prevent the virus that spreads through droplet infection, but cotton masks can get wet, which limits protection capability,” KCDC Director General Jeong Eun-Kyeong said in a press briefing earlier this month.

Jeong added that surgical masks or ones with filtration capabilities are a safer choice.

By Kim Bo-gyung (