People are using gaiters as face masks—but are they as effective?

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As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends people wear cloth face coverings whenever in public (and many states and businesses require it), face masks have become a hot commodity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hundreds of retailers, including Nordstrom, Anthropologie, and Athleta, have begun selling masks, from those with adjustable ear loops to those with built-in filter pockets and even clear ones.

However, despite being necessary for preventing the spread of coronavirus, face masks aren’t always the most comfortable thing to wear. People—especially those who have to wear masks for extended periods of time, like essential essential workers and healthcare professionals—often complain of pain behind their ears due to the mask straps and skin irritation. As a result, some have started looking for alternatives to the traditional face mask.

Enter the neck gaiter. This wide tube of fabric is worn around the neck (instead of the ears) and easily pulled up and down, to cover and uncover the mouth and nose as desired. But are they as effective as masks? Here’s everything you need to know about neck gaiters, according to experts, and where to buy the best ones right now.

Are neck gaiters effective?

Likely yes—if worn correctly, experts say. “Based on data available, face coverings including gaiters likely provide some benefit in that they will reduce the spread of respiratory droplets from an infected person to the area surrounding that individual,” explains Jason Kessler, M.D., Section Chief of Infectious Disease at Atlantic Health System’s Morristown Medical Center in New Jersey. He adds that the material, the fit, and whether or not the person is wearing the gaiter as recommended (over the mouth and nose) can all impact how effective it is as a face covering.

Whether or not a gaiter is as protective as a face mask is up for debate. Dr. Kessler notes that there have not yet been any studies done comparing the two, so there is no conclusive recommendation. However, Emily Sickbert-Bennett, PhD, Director of Infection Prevention at UNC Hospitals in N.C., says: “We do know that tighter-fitting face masks have better aerosol filtration, but the most important thing is for people to find a mask that is comfortable that they can and will wear.  A neck gaiter covering the nose and mouth would most likely be appropriate.”

How to choose a neck gaiter

If you opt to wear a neck gaiter, how do you pick the best one? While, as mentioned, no studies have yet been done to differentiate between types of face coverings, Dr. Kessler says that there are certain features to look for when choosing a gaiter. “Face coverings that are made of multiple weaves [i.e., higher thread counts] seem to block more respiratory droplets than those with lower thread counts,” Dr. Kessler explains, adding, “In addition, there is some evidence that [face coverings] made of blended materials (cotton plus another material) may be somewhat more effective as well.”

Of course, comfort is key, as well. No matter the material, experts like Dr. Kessler and Dr. Sickbert-Bennett stress that choosing either a face mask or a gaiter that you can wear comfortably for extended periods of time will be most effective, as you won’t be tempted to remove it or adjust it, which could transfer germs from your hands to your face.

The best neck gaiters you can buy

You can find neck gaiters at a number of retailers online, from Amazon to REI to Etsy. The top-rated one on Amazon is the Mission neck gaiter—which has over 3,100 rave reviews for being both comfortable and breathable—followed closely by this Achiou one, which also has thousands of reviews for its snug fit and plethora of stylish designs. Over at REI, the most popular neck gaiter is one from Blackstrap, which people say fits securely and feels soft against your skin. And finally, Etsy offers tons of different neck gaiter options, including this highly-recommended one which even has an adjustable nose piece to prevent it from slipping.

No matter which you choose, it’s important that you wear something, Dr. Kessler reminds people. “It is difficult to compare all of these factors to recommend masks versus gaiters but, clearly, wearing a face covering of any kind is better than not,” he says. 

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Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.

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