New research: Neck gaiters can protect as well as cloth masks, scientists say

Duke study showing neck gaiters are ineffective was misinterpreted, researchers say

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A Duke University study that seemed to indicate wearing a neck gaiter might be worse than wearing no mask at all has been misunderstood, one researcher involved in the study told the New York Times. 

“Our intent was not to say this mask doesn’t work, or never use neck gaiters” an associate research professor told the NYT. “This was not the main part of the paper.” 

Other scientists have also come out and contradicted that interpretation of the study, saying the point of the Duke study was to demonstrate a new, low-cost way to test masks. 

In the study, scientists tested how effective 14 different coverings were, and a part of their study found that gaiter-type neck fleeces or bandanas offered “very little protection” and during one test, researchers observed more saliva particles with the gaiter than with no mask at all. 

According to the Duke study, when someone spoke through a neck gaiter, droplets were broken into smaller ones that could stay in the air longer. 

But other researchers have since found that it was much more likely that Duke's neck gaiter was shedding microscopic pieces of fibers from the fabric. 

“Observations from the Duke study have been interpreted to mean that neck gaiters cause droplet breakup and are thus worse than no mask,” said Trinity University professor Ryan Davis. “However, observations from my laboratory at Trinity University suggest this isn’t the case.” 

UC Davis researchers had similar findings, saying that friction between a person’s face and a mask can cause small particles that aren’t exhaled but are from small bits of fibers breaking off from the mask. 

“Importantly, certain masks are more sensitive to this phenomenon than others, depending on the mask material, which we believe can explain the differences in the Duke study,” UC Davis researcher Chris Cappa said. “We are working to develop a comprehensive understanding of this mask material dependence.” 

All of these scientists said that neck gaiters can protect as well as cloth masks, depending on the material they’re made from. 

“My laboratory, which has deep experience in generating and measuring aerosols and has access to ‘gold standard’ equipment, tested two neck gaiters on a manikin,” Virginia Tech professor Linsey Marr said. “We found that they performed similarly to the CDC no-sew cloth mask made of a 100% cotton T-shirt, and that if doubled over, they block at least 90% of droplets and aerosols that are 0.5 microns and larger.” 

Cappa also agreed with recommendations from the CDC, which says masks with ventilation holes do not effectively prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

About the Authors:

Kelly Wiley, an award-winning investigative reporter, joined the News4Jax I-Team in June 2019.

A Jacksonville native and proud University of North Florida alum, Francine Frazier has been with News4Jax since 2014 after spending nine years at The Florida Times-Union.