The guidelines around COVID-19 are constantly evolving as experts learn more about the novel coronavirus, but one recommendation from doctors and the CDC has remained intact: wearing a face mask can slow the spread of the virus. Up until recently, just about any face covering had been deemed helpful, provided it covered your nose and mouth. However, new research from Duke University suggested that neck gaiters — the pieces of fabric that act like a sleeve for your face and neck — are far less efficient than a traditional face mask.
In the study, researchers tracked how many particles from a person's mouth were being released into the air through and around the mask. The results suggested that the neck gaiter may actually be worse than wearing no mask at all. After the study was shared widely, though, the research team at Duke clarified with The New York Times that the data was misconstrued. "Our intent was not to say this mask doesn't work, or never use neck gaiters," said Martin Fischer, PhD, an associate research professor at Duke and a coauthor of the study. In fact, the purpose of the study was to test an inexpensive technology that would allow mask manufacturers to evaluate their own products.
What's more, The New York Times reported that Linsey Marr, PhD, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech, had conducted her own study on single-layer and double-layer neck gaiters, which found that both blocked particles from escaping the mask, though the double-layer gaiter was more effective. "I've been recommending neck gaiters, and my kids wear neck gaiters," Dr. Marr, a leading expert on aerosols, told The New York Times. "There's nothing inherent about a neck gaiter that should make it any worse than a cloth mask. It comes down to the fabric and how well it fits."
To get a better understanding of what works — and doesn't — in the fight against COVID-19, we spoke to two experts to get their take on these latest developments.
What Makes Neck Gaiters Less Effective Than Other Masks?
David Cutler, MD, a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, told POPSUGAR that more research is needed to better understand the efficacy of the different types of face masks. That being said, it's widely understood that N95 masks — which should be left to medical professionals — are the most effective at blocking the virus. Surgical masks and fabric face masks are acceptable for daily use among the general population, Dr. Cutler explained. Where does this leave neck gaiters? "Cloth gaiters will likely be less effective than a cloth mask that has a paper filter inside to block virus transmission," he said.
As the NYT piece noted, that's in part because multilayer masks — with or without a filter — seem to offer more protection. Many people have been wearing neck gaiters while exercising because of how easy they are to take on and off and because they're commonly made with a single layer of porous material that's easier to breathe through. However, this is part of what makes neck gaiters problematic: if the fabric is easier for you to breathe through, it's also more likely that your germs can escape. According to Dr. Cutler, the porous material can "allow germs to flow through," and it can also hold more moisture (as in, your spit), "which can sustain viral activity."
If you're taking the gaiter on and off while exercising, you're also touching it with potentially unclean hands, something the CDC recommends people avoid doing.
Is It Ever OK to Wear a Neck Gaiter?
What's most important is that you're wearing something over your mouth and nose. "One thing we know with fair certainty is that if everyone wore a mask, there would be a lot less COVID-19," Dr. Cutler said. In light of this latest research around neck gaiters, specifically, Dr. Cutler noted that the average fabric face mask or neck gaiter isn't perfect, but it's still useful. "The key takeaway about masks is that everyone should wear one," he explained. "We should all accept that perfect is the enemy of good."
That being said, multiple layers of fabric will always be better than one, regardless of which type of mask you choose. "The CDC recommends using a mask that traps respiratory droplets and prevents them from being released," Mike Bell, MD, deputy director of the CDC's Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion, told POPSUGAR. "Use a fabric that you can layer (two to three layers) that's washable." Be sure to wash the mask after each use.
Similarly, Dr. Bell noted that one of the most important factors of a face mask is that it fits snugly around your face, something not all neck gaiters do. "The main job of the mask is to keep the respiratory droplets that you produce when talking, sneezing, coughing, and raising your voice to sing or shout from being spread into the environment around you, possibly landing into the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or be inhaled into the lungs of others," Dr. Bell said.
So make sure your mask is sitting securely against your face at all times, and keep a safe distance of six feet between yourself and others.