As we're looking to wear the best possible protection for ourselves and our communities, we may need to think beyond what feels best as it's recently come out that neck gaiters and valved masks may be less than helpful and even dangerous. The best masks to protect ourselves and others may not be what we thought. We should probably reconsider some types of masks. Here's why.
Neck gaiters have become increasingly popular for exercising outdoors. These lightweight coverings seem like they'll be easier than a traditional mask for sport and lots of people have picked up wearing them for that reason. But that thin material that lets us breathe more easily as we exercise fails to provide protection against COVID-19, warn Duke University researchers—and that's not all.
Researchers looked at how different materials and types of masks block those droplets. The study analyzed 14 types of face coverings. Those coverings included medical-grade N95 masks, bandanas, neck gaiters, cotton masks, and surgical masks.
Researchers focused on the risks of spreading infection by speaking as well as sneezing or coughing. When we talk, sneeze, or cough we release small particles or droplets that, if we are infected, contain the virus. They found that:
Researchers also explained why neck gaiters are so ineffective. Airborne droplets from speaking through neck gaiters cause the biggest droplets to turn into large quantities of smaller droplets. That means neck gaiters actually increase the number of droplets more than no mask at all. These particles are smaller, lighter, and don't fall as readily to the ground because they're essentially aerosolized which means they're light, mobile, and easily spread. So you an imagine someone talking around spraying virus particles like a hairspray can. That's not good.
Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to shop we go...with our hand sanitizer, masks, and plans to stay at least 6 feet away from other shoppers. That plan sounds like the perfect checklist for staying safe in the age of coronavirus. But just as with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) creating a do-not-use hand sanitizer list, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently added a warning to their mask guidelines. And not everyone noticed.
The new warning: Avoid masks with valves or vents. These types of facial coverings contain holes designed to let us exhale air. They're great for protecting ourselves form airborne contaminants in a factory setting but they do not protect people around us from any virus particles that we may be carrying around.
If we have COVID-19, we could infect others by exhaling through those valves or vents because they allow our breath to exit the mask unfiltered. Consequently, the CDC advises that we wear other, more effective types of masks.
The CDC isn’t the only organization to warn against masks with valves. The Duke University face mask study also analyzed N95s with valves and researchers found that N95 masks with exhalation valves cause significant airflow—meaning that the air exits the mask without filtering. The study showed that even medical-grade N95s with valves don’t protect those around the wearer. They just aren't designed for this kind of use.
Now that we know to step away from neck gaiters and valved masks, we can focus on which masks are most helpful in a pandemic. That means choosing a mask designed to protect those around us if we are infected with COVID-19. This is a case of I protect you, you protect me, and we are all safe.
Here’s how the masks measure up in reducing the risk of infection, according to recent studies:
As the list above shows, we have many options for effective masks, but the editors of Wellness advise choosing from the fist four levels to do our best by our communities. And although the science about droplets may seem complex, the benefits of masks are clear and choosing the best mask to protect ourselves from COVID-19 doesn't have to be complex. With the exception of valved masks and neck gaiters, masks reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection so choose one with a couple of layers of good fabric and don't stress over it too much beyond that—at that point you've done your best. Stay safe out there, everyone.
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