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'Can I Wear a Gaiter Instead of a Mask?'

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By Elizabeth Hanes, BSN, RNAugust 10, 2020
From the WebMD Archives

I’ve said it before: None of us really loves wearing a face mask. And so, we seek solutions to our discomfort (such as wearing a mask with a valve – which is a no-no).

But what about wearing a gaiter instead of a mask?

A gaiter (or “neck gaiter”) is a tube of fabric that fits around the neck. Originally designed for outdoor activities, like skiing and running, gaiters provide light warmth and moisture wicking from the neck and head. Now people also are wearing them as a face covering for COVID-19. The question is: Do gaiters work as well as actual face masks when it comes to trapping the germs you exhale?

There’s no definitive research on gaiters as mask replacements. The point of a mask is to prevent respiratory droplets from traveling into the air and onto other people when the person wearing the mask coughs, sneezes, talks, or raises their voice. This is called source control.A neck gaiter is probably at least somewhat effective at doing this. You may have seen headlines about a study that calls the effectiveness of gaiters into question (even claiming that wearing one is worse than no mask at all). It’s important to point out this was merely a “proof of concept” study – meaning, the researchers were ONLY looking into whether or not their experiment was a good way to measure the effectiveness of masks. So, while they did use masks to conduct the test, they were not focused on producing scientifically reliable data on the masks themselves – they were simply testing their test. This matters for a lot of reasons that are too science-y to get into here – but the important bottom line is, this “study” is not nearly enough to prove that gaiters are worse than no covering at all.

For many people, gaiters feel more comfortable to wear than a mask. Since gaiters loop around the neck, they are less constricting than a face mask, which might reduce the feelings of claustrophobia that some people say masks cause. For some non-mask wearers, this feature may makes gaiters seem like a reasonable compromise (and even if we’re not 100% sure how effective the gaiters are, I’d rather be around someone wearing a gaiter than no face covering at all).

To choose the best gaiter to wear as a face mask, pick one made from a blended fabric that contains cotton and a synthetic, like polyester. Gaiters tend to be made of thin material, which doesn’t offer great filtration (and kind of defeats the purpose of wearing a face covering), so choose one made of thick material or multiple layers of fabric. Or, layer a couple of gaiters on top of each other.

The most important thing about wearing a face covering is simply to do it – every time you go out in public. Ideally, it’s a cotton face mask, but if you only have a gaiter – or it’s the only face covering you can tolerate – then, for now, use your gaiter. And keep your eye out for updated face mask advice – as we do more research, our understanding about what works (and what doesn’t) is sure to evolve.

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