The great mask debate of 2020 continues — this time, it’s not about whether or not to wear one (experts agree they are vital) but whether certain ones still provide protection. Last week, fans of the neck gaiter, a tube preferred by runners, were dealt a blow when a study out of Duke University seemed to suggest that one type of gaiter was not effective, and may actually make things worse.
But in the wake of cries from experts to abandon the gaiter altogether, the authors of the Duke study came forward to clarify that the research may have been taken out of context and was never meant to dissuade individuals from wearing neck gaiters. “Our intent was not to say this mask doesn’t work, or never use neck gaiters,” the study’s co-author Martin Fischer, an associate professor at Duke, told the New York Times.
So are neck gaiters still worth wearing? While much more research is needed to make any sweeping conclusions about the activewear, a new study out this week from Virginia Tech revealed that certain types of gaiters may actually provide equal protection to a well-constructed cloth mask — and that wearing two gaiters at once may provide even more.
Renowned aerosol expert Linsey Marr led the study, along with Virginia Tech graduate student Jin Pan. Together, they tested two different neck gaiters using foam mannequins, a medical nebulizer and a spray bottle with a solution that mimicked saliva. The first mask was manufactured by Canadian company Chaos and made of 100 percent polyester (and similar in makeup to those sold under the brand name Buff). The second gaiter came from Colorado-based company Locale Outdoor (formerly Cirque Mountain) and was made of 87 percent polyester and 13 percent elastane (also known as spandex or lycra).
Some neck gaiters may be as effective as cloth masks
Based on the test, both masks proved “100 percent efficient” at containing large droplets (over 20 micrometers), preventing them from reaching a foam mannequin about 12 inches away. The percentage decreased the smaller the droplets got, with the gaiters preventing 80 to 90 percent of 5-micrometer droplets and approximately 50 percent protection against 1-micrometer (or 0.000039-inch) droplets.
While neither gaiter was particularly powerful against the smallest droplets (0.5 micrometers or less), when the Chaos neck gaiter was doubled, it provided “90 percent efficiency over all [droplet] sizes measured” — even more than some cloth masks. The authors provided a comparison graph showing that a “no-sew mask” — as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — provided similar protection to a single gaiter, and less than two gaiters.
The results led Marr and Pan to conclude that the two neck gaiters studied “provide similar performance to other cloth masks.” Marr, who declined the opportunity to comment, wrote in her tweet that she was “pleased” with the results and called on more aerosol experts to conduct similar studies.
However, there’s not enough to research to say definitively that all of them help
Saskia Popescu, an infection prevention epidemiologist at George Mason University, says both gaiter studies bring value. “The initial Duke study is a great place to start, as we have little information about the efficacy of masks outside of surgical and N95 respirators, but ultimately is quite limited and really should be seen as a trigger for needing more studies,” Popescu tells Yahoo Life. “The secondary study, by the team at Virginia Tech, addresses this very issue and provides some important information, but I think really what this reiterates is that we need to have more data and research around face coverings, including a range of materials but also face shields — all in terms of source control and protection for the person wearing it.”
The need for more research is also what struck Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, about the gaiter debate. “In general, I think that this underscores the fact that not all masks are equal, and that you’re not wearing a mask to check a box,” says Adalja. “I think that what’s needed is more research on the effectiveness of masks that people are wearing in everyday life. And I think the more research we do, the better the guidance can be.”
As of now, Adalja wouldn’t recommend wearing gaiters. “I probably would stay away from the gaiters as a mask of choice because we at least have some evidence that some don’t necessarily work,” says Adalja. “Until we get more data, I would not probably recommend the use of gaiter.” He recommends instead either a three-layer cloth mask or a surgical mask (which are available at places like CVS and Walgreens), or a face shield, which is available many places online.
While the brands do not endorse the gaiters as COVID-19 protection, experts say they may be better than no mask at all
In a statement to Yahoo Life, a spokesperson from Chaos, one of the gaiter brands, clarified that the company has “never made claims or statements that these … were to be worn as PPE” and suggests instead they be worn “only as a base layer option to cover the mouth/nose.” Locale Outdoor had not responded to Yahoo Life’s request for comment at the time of publishing but Buff, listed as a “similar” brand, shared a caution statement on its website about the gaiters.
“Buff head and neckwear protects against many of nature’s elements. However, while our multifunctional headwear products cover the entire front of the face (nose, mouth, chin, and neck), they are not scientifically proven by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) to prevent you from: (1) contracting a virus/disease/illness or (2) passing a virus/disease/illness to someone else,” the statement reads.
Yahoo Life Medical Contributor Dr. Dara Kass says she’s less concerned about the effectiveness of neck gaiters and more about people continuing to actually wear a face covering at all. “People are looking for a lot of certainty around this virus and that includes things like mask-wearing and neck gaiters,” says Kass. “We don’t have perfect data on the protection of every kind of facial covering but what we do know is that covering your face is better than not covering it.”
Kass doesn’t want individuals who prefer neck gaiters to become discouraged by the news and decide not to wear anything. “It’s important to cover your face — with a mask, if possible. But if not, it’s better to cover your face than not to — even with a neck gaiter,” argues Kass. “A lot of people are looking for us to be wrong, to prove that nothing we’re saying is right. So these studies, without context, run the risk of distracting us from the bigger picture, which is: covering your face when you’re in proximity to somebody you don’t know protects them from you and you from them. So, wear a mask. If you choose to wear a neck gaiter instead of a mask, know that it’s probably not as effective — but it’s better than nothing.”
For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.
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