What’s the Deal With Neck Gaiters?

There’s debate over whether the popular running accessory can be a replacement for a mask

Photo: Gina Ferazzi/Getty Images

Step outside during the pandemic, and you’ll (hopefully) see people in a wide variety of face coverings: colorful cloth masks that loop behind the ears, cowboy-inspired bandanas, the rare N95. Occasionally you’ll see a tube of fabric encircling a neck and pulled up over the nose. This is the neck gaiter or buff, favored by athletes for its breathability — and by some face-covering proponents for its convenience.

Research published this week thrust neck gaiters into a harsh spotlight, raising concerns about their effectiveness in preventing the spread of the coronavirus. The research, published in the journal Science Advances by a team at Duke University, investigated a new, cheap method of assessing the effectiveness of face coverings using a setup involving a cellphone camera and an inexpensive laser. In testing this method — the idea is that the laser allows one to visualize and record the movement of any droplets expelled through a face covering when speaking — a speaker in the study wore 14 different types of face coverings, one of which was a neck gaiter, and said the phrase: “Stay healthy, people.”

Some of the findings were unsurprising: N95 masks, used by health care workers, were the most effective, allowing less than 0.1% of particles to be transmitted. Surgical masks were similarly good at blocking particles. The researchers established 100% to be the baseline amount of particles emitted when not wearing a mask.

The neck gaiter, meanwhile, allowed the transmission of 110% of particles. In other words, wearing a neck gaiter resulted in the emission of more particles than one would expect from a person talking normally. Interpretations of this result in the media, notably the write-up in the Washington Post, took this to mean that wearing a neck gaiter might actually be worse than not wearing a mask at all. Co-author Martin Fischer, PhD, of Duke’s chemistry and physics departments, says in a video produced by Duke that it “might be counterproductive to wear such a mask” as the neck gaiter examined in the study. That the reason the neck gaiter might have produced more particles is because the fabric it’s made of might break up big particles into even smaller particles, which might be more easily carried through the air.

“It’s not the case that any mask is better than nothing,” he says in the video. “There are some masks that hurt rather than do good.”

This explanation may have seemed very conclusive, but there is plenty of reason to take it with a grain of salt. For one thing, the study’s aim was not to assess the effectiveness of masks but to validate the method of assessing them. Relatedly, it was also very small: It only involved one male speaker who spoke the phrase five times per trial, and each trial was repeated 10 times.

The study also doesn’t account for the different types of fabrics used to make neck gaiters — again, because that wasn’t the point of the study. These fabrics can come in different thicknesses and are also sometimes worn folded over, both factors potentially increasing a gaiter’s ability to trap particles. Then there is the question of how a gaiter fits over a person’s mouth and nose.

The short of it is that there isn’t enough evidence from this study to rule out neck gaiters or any type of face covering, though it suggests that more research is warranted. If there’s a useful takeaway from this study, it’s the reminder that so many droplets are emitted from the mouth when speaking and that we must do everything that we can to keep those droplets from traveling to other people.

Scientists have established that the coronavirus is spread through close contact via those droplets, and there is mounting evidence that smaller droplets can stay airborne and travel over six feet. This means wearing masks whenever possible. As for what kind? We know a few things: N95 masks are worn by health care professionals, and masks with air valves don’t work. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that masks, whether homemade or store-bought, should fit snugly but comfortably against the face, completely cover the nose and mouth, be secured with ties or ear loops, and include multiple layers of fabric. For more specific guidance, all we can do is wait.

Editor, Medium Coronavirus Blog. Senior editor at Future Human by OneZero. Previously: science at Inverse, genetics at NYU.

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