Science

For All We Know, Gaiter Masks Are Fine

News stories suggesting gaiters are worse than no mask at all are relying on a study that proves no such thing.

A runner in the Los Angeles Marathon on March 8.
A runner in the Los Angeles Marathon on March 8. Mario Tama/Getty Images

“Wearing a Neck Gaiter May Be Worse Than No Mask at All, Researchers Find.” That is the headline on a Washington Post story, published in the paper’s lifestyle section, covering the results of a study published on Friday in Science Advances. It’s representative of most of the breathless news coverage on this study, which has gotten an incredible amount of press—one of its authors, Martin Fischer, told his local paper that by Monday morning he’d received 130 emails about it, many of the press requests from major news outlets. The finding, that wearing a gaiter might not just be worthless but actively more harmful than wearing nothing, is, anecdotally, tearing some running groups apart.

It shouldn’t be. This study in no way proves that face gaiters are a menace, or even unhelpful, in the age of coronavirus. Here is what the researchers did: They, quite reasonably, recognized that while face masks have become an essential part of our lives and one of the key tools we have in the fight against the coronavirus, there hasn’t been a ton of comparative research on which kinds of masks are best. So they set about creating a methodology that would make it possible to compare different mask types to one another. That methodology counted droplet spread by using a laser, a camera, and other tools they had lying around their lab, and it seems pretty useful, as a cheap and easy system for evaluating masks.

The purpose of the research was to establish that the testing method worked in principle—not to come up with meaningful or accurate verdicts about particular masks. Still, they selected 14 different types of face masks and mask alternatives to try out, including a classic N95, a surgical mask, a handmade cotton mask, a “knitted mask” (?), a bandana, and a gaiter (they refer to the gaiter confusingly as a “neck fleece,” but it’s just one of those stretchy wraps that people often wear around their necks and pull up to cover their faces). Here is the extent of the testing they did: In most instances, they had just one guy wear the mask while repeating the words “stay healthy, people,” five times in a row on camera. They had him do this protocol 10 times in each mask, and for three of the mask options, they had four different people don the mask and do the protocol, to see how the measurements might vary between them.

It was by no means an exhaustive study that lets us make conclusions about gaiters—it’s a study that incidentally happened to use a gaiter in the course of putting forth a methodology that other people might be able to use to in doing real experiments that would make conclusions about gaiters.

As the authors themselves write:

Again, we want to note that the mask tests performed here (one speaker for all masks and four speakers for selected masks) should serve only as a demonstration. Inter-subject variations are to be expected, for example due to difference in physiology, mask fit, head position, speech pattern, and such.

In other words, maybe this one guy (and, yes, the gaiter test was only conducted on one person, not four) just didn’t wear the gaiter particularly well, or maybe it didn’t fit his face, or maybe the gaiter itself was an uncharacteristic gaiter. If you look at the figure showing the “relative droplet count,” i.e., how many drops they saw escape the mask compared to wearing no mask, you see that for the three masks they tested on multiple people, the error bars get much larger, which suggests that the fit of a mask might produce a lot of variation (this is less true of the less flexible surgical mask, and much more true of the bandana, which is … a lot like a gaiter). That’s one problem with having a sample size of one—there might be something distinct about that person.

At any rate, this one guy wearing this one gaiter spewed 110 percent the amount of droplets that were spewed when not wearing a mask. The researchers suggested that the reason why he spewed more droplets in the gaiter was because that mask broke the large droplets into smaller droplets, but they didn’t discuss whether small droplets or large droplets would be more likely to transmit the coronavirus—i.e., what people wearing gaiters and masks are presumably worried about.

The study is probably getting so much press and attention because it seems to confirm something that feels basically right: Gaiters are more comfortable than masks. There’s more room to breathe in them. That’s why runners like them so much, plus they’re easy to pull on and off depending on one’s proximity to other people. It’s pretty obvious that a gaiter is probably not as good as wearing a fitted mask when it comes to containing what you spew. But that brings me to what I think is maybe the most relevant part of the study methodology for runners in particular—the test was of the person talking (“with a strong voice”) through the mask. If you look back to the main chart of the results, the graph on the right shows just how important talking is for droplet spew—for the green gaiter line, you can see it spike five distinct times, one time for each “stay healthy, people,” before it drops off. If you’re a runner who is not talking while you run, should you worry much about this study, and its suggestion that wearing a gaiter is actively worse than wearing nothing? I don’t think so.

Obviously, it would be useful for runners to know how, say, heavy breathing affects droplet spew outside of one’s gaiter—and that would be a great thing to test, using the camera-and-laser testing methodology laid out in this study. Again, as the authors themselves note, that was the whole point. “This method can also test masks under other conditions, like coughing or sneezing,” they write. It’s worth noting that another experiment, from a researcher at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, actually found that gaiters were the most effective mask in containing a cough, though those gaiters were slightly different, containing elastic.

We are in the middle of a pandemic that has been grossly mismanaged by our government, and we’re all stressed out and desperate for information about how to stay safe. But to interpret this study as proof that neck gaiters are worse than wearing nothing is a wild misrepresentation of what it actually found. Should you think twice about wearing just a gaiter inside, in close proximity to other people? Yeah, a fitted mask is probably better. But you didn’t need this study to tell you that.

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