DURHAM, N.C. – Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are choosing neck gaiters as their go-to face covering. The ease with which they can slide up and down the face makes them a favorite among runners and hikers. Now, however, a new study suggests this lightweight, breathable fabric may be worse at blocking the coronavirus than wearing no face mask at all.
Researchers at Duke University say bandanas and neck gaiters are among the worst choices for face coverings when it comes to blocking fluid droplets. Airborne droplets of saliva, or aerosols, emitted when one coughs, sneezes, or even speaks can cause transmission of the coronavirus, experts say. This is why mask use and social distancing are two keys to slowing the spread of the virus.
To study how well face masks prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Duke team focused on fluid droplets coming from the mouth when people speak. To do this, they used an inexpensive apparatus made from cheap and easily obtained laboratory materials. It consists of a box, a laser, a lens, and a cell phone camera.
The study in the journal Science Advances shows most types of face masks block fluid droplets from traveling far from the mouth. Despite this discovery, not all face coverings perform as well as others.
Best face masks vs. worst face masks
The best masks are N95 masks without valves. These types of masks are commonly used by healthcare workers and in medical facilities. Researchers say surgical or polypropylene face coverings and fabric (cotton) masks also work relatively well.
In contrast, bandanas and neck gaiters do not block fluid droplets well at all. Study authors explain that neck gaiters cause larger fluid droplets to break up into smaller particles. This increases droplet counts and could allow particles to hang around in the air for longer periods of time. This, in turn, could raise the likelihood that someone wearing a neck gaiter transmits COVID-19 to others nearby.
“Wearing a mask is a simple and easy way to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” senior author Eric Westman says in a university statement. “About half of infections are from people who don’t show symptoms, and often don’t know they’re infected. They can unknowingly spread the virus when the cough, sneeze and just talk.”
Westman adds that 99 percent of infectious droplets can be stopped before reaching another person if everyone wears a functioning face mask.
“In the absence of a vaccine or antiviral medicine, it’s the one proven way to protect others as well as yourself,” he says.