Are Neck Gaiters Really ‘the Worst’ COVID-19 Face Covering?

By | August 14, 2020

Pity the neck gaiter. The easy up, easy down, flexible, easy-to-have-with-you outdoor exerciser’s BFF. The flexible face covering that got lots of hate this week and had runners and other exercisers wringing their hands when outlets reported on a Duke University study with headlines like “Neck Gaiters are Worse than Wearing No Mask at All.”

We like our gaiters. We also like science. So we investigated whether that study really meant that we should toss our gaiters and adopt another kind of mask for exercise. Here’s what the experts said.

The study wasn’t designed to test which mask is better

The study, published in Science Advances, looked at what happened to droplets that spewed out when a test subject said the words “stay healthy, people.” Droplets were viewed and measured when the speaker wore various types of face coverings, from an N95 to a surgical mask, to different types of cloth masks, to a bandana and a neck gaiter (one of those circular pieces of fabric that’s like the neck of a turtleneck, minus the rest of the sweater).

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The researchers were looking for a low-cost way to measure how effective face masks are, and were testing a setup that, to oversimplify a bit, involved a box, a light and a cell phone camera.

The setup tests measured the least spew when the person spoke and was wearing an N95 mask. Three-layered surgical masks also prevented more spew than most of the fabric masks. But what took over social media is that when the test subject wore the gaiter, the scientists measured 110 percent of the droplets that were measured without any mask at all.

Thing is, the study wasn’t intended to draw conclusions about masks; it was to test a setup. “The Duke study was a proof-of-principle study to support a low-cost, simple method for future mask performance studies,” says David Nieman, DrPH, professor in the department of biology at Appalachian State University and director of the Human Performance Laboratory at The North Carolina Research Campus, who is a key researcher in the field of exercise and nutrition immunology. “So the results from this study cannot be broadly applied to exercise conditions,” he says.

How effective a gaiter is might depend on what it’s made of

The researchers suspect that the gaiter broke the respiratory droplets into smaller particles, which is why they measured so many of them. And smaller particles can generally travel longer distances. “This is concerning,” says Kirsten Hokeness, PhD, immunity researcher and professor and chair of the department of science and technology at Bryant University. “However not all gaiters are made with the same material. The gaiter in this study was described as a ‘fleece’ gaiter made of polyester spandex material. This type of material is meant to be breathable and is porous.” So it makes sense, she says, that particles came through it. “Some gaiters are made with layered materials and can fit a bit snugger around the mouth and nose. Before deciding on whether gaiters are effective, it would be prudent to see if other types of gaiters that have a more layered construction would perform better and more closely in line with what was seen with the masks,” she says.

The other question the smaller particles raise is whether smaller droplets are more likely to transmit the virus—and the answer right now is another (we know—frustrating) “we don’t know yet.”

How effective any mask is might depend on who’s wearing it

“You can’t make any conclusions on this considering that with any mask, there are variations in fit, personal size, speed, individual physiology and other differences,” says Stefan Flores, MD, assistant professor in the department of emergency medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. “For most of the testing, one guy was wearing the masks, and this guy may have had a particular facial structure, or may have spoken a certain way.” In the few masks that were tested on more than one person, the margin of error is much larger, which suggests that there is a big difference in particle spew depending on who’s behind the mask.

So the neck gaiter is neither totally off the hook nor totally useless—there’s no way to know that from the research so far. “A mask is probably better, but to make the conclusion that a gaiter is worse than no mask at all…is likely wrong,” says Dr. Flores, “and further studies would need to be done.”

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Consider using this mantra

Matthew Ferrari, PhD, of the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at The Pennsylvania State University, says it’s “striking” how poorly neck gaiters performed, although “in general, we consider gaiters and other single-ply coverings/masks to be less effective than multiple-ply coverings.”

And until more definitive research can be done, he says, “we’re sticking with the tried and true advice.” That means, in his memorable words, “Stay apart. Stay outside. Wear a multi-ply mask if you can. Wear anything in a pinch.”

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