Neck gaiters have become popular DIY masks for hikers and runners during the COVID pandemic. But results from a new study suggest they may actually do more harm than good.
When cities and states around the country began to mandate masks in response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, many hikers, runners, and cyclists reached for their neck gaiters. Simple, common, and easy to wear around the neck when not in use, the tubes of fabric have become a common sight on trails around the country. Now a study from Duke University suggests that not only do they not prevent wearers from spewing potentially virus-laden respiratory droplets into the air, they may actually be making things worse.
The seven-person team tested 14 different types of masks, ranging from a fit-tested N95 respirator to a bandana, by having test subjects speak into a box while wearing them and recording the resulting respiratory droplets using a laser beam and a cell phone camera. Unsurprisingly, some of the masks in the test proved to be extremely effective, with the N95 blocking 99.9% of droplets and the surgical mask only slightly fewer. Even the cotton masks stopped as many as 90% of droplets as compared to a control group.
When the subject wore a neck gaiter, however, researchers recorded 10% more airborne droplets than they did from an unmasked control subject. In their paper, published in Science Advances, they explained that the neck fleece appeared to split larger droplets into multiple, smaller droplets.
“Considering that smaller particles are airborne longer than large droplets (larger droplets sink faster), the use of such a mask might be counterproductive,” the researchers wrote.
While the results of the experiment are eye-opening, it’s important to recognize that they’re not definitive: The main goal of the study was to design an easily-replicable, low-cost setup for studying masks, not to draw concrete conclusions on them. In an interview with CNET, author Dr. Martin Fischer pointed out that the team only tested one type of neck gaiter, and that more thorough research would be necessary to make “specific use recommendations.”