Study Shows Neck Gaiters May Be Worse Than No Mask At All

by Madison Vanderberg
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Neck gaiter face coverings may be more dangerous than not wearing one at all, according to new study

Since the CDC and the WHO announced that wearing cloth masks and face coverings are effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19, all sorts of masks have come onto the market but new research shows that not all face coverings are created equal. Researchers at Duke University concluded that cloth face masks are nearly as effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19 as surgical masks, but most worrisome is that the neck fleeces, or neck gaiters, might be more dangerous than just not wearing one at all.

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Neck gaiters aren’t as common as other masks, but they are typically a thin sheath made of polyester spandex that stretches across the face and neck, and because of this, they are more comfortable to wear — and are popular with runners. But that thinner, stretchier fabric potentially contributes to a greater spread of virus-containing respiratory droplets.

Using lasers and cameras, the researchers studied how effective 14 different masks from N95 respirators to bandanas were at containing the individual particles released from a person’s mouth. Not surprisingly N95 masks were most effective and did not allow any droplets to escape, followed close behind by surgical masks and a number of cloth masks, which we’ve known to be effective, but it’s comforting to see another study prove it as such.

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The problem with the neck gaiters is that their thin and porous fabric might actually be breaking up bigger respiratory droplets into many little ones that are more likely to hang around in the air longer. “Speaking through some masks (particularly the neck fleece) seemed to disperse the largest droplets into a multitude of smaller droplets, which explains the apparent increase in droplet count relative to no mask in that case. Considering that smaller particles are airborne longer than large droplets (larger droplets sink faster), the use of [a neck gaiter] might be counterproductive,” the study explained.

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“These neck gaiters are extremely common in a lot of places because they’re very convenient to wear,” Warren S. Warren, a professor of physics, chemistry, radiology, and biomedical engineering at Duke, told The Washington Post. “But the exact reason why they’re so convenient, which is that they don’t restrict air, is the reason why they’re not doing much of a job helping people.”

The other mask to watch out for is an N95 with an escape valve, which literally allows the droplets to escape from your mouth right into the air. It may not be as dangerous as the neck gaiter, but it’s certainly not useful.

As more dubious face coverings hit the market (like these bizarre shirt masks), it’s important to stay current on how effective all these alternatives really are. The good news is that cloth face masks continue to be cheap, effective, and readily available.