Face Shields Can Be Helpful at Preventing Coronavirus Spread, but Should Be Worn with a Mask

"From a purely scientific point of view, if you asked me, a surgical grade mask versus a shield, I would wear a mask," Dr. David Edwards of Harvard University tells PEOPLE

Healthcare worker wearing PPE
Healthcare worker wearing PPE. Photo: Getty

Although health experts all agree on the importance of wearing protective face coverings in public, there's an increasing number of options on the market these days, so which products are most effective at preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus?

While surgical and cloth face masks have been the standard choice amid the pandemic thus far, plastic face shields have started to rise in popularity.

When asked whether they work as well as more traditional face masks, Dr. David Edwards of Harvard University, who’s also the CEO and Founder of Sensory Cloud, tells PEOPLE that there are "pros and cons” to the plastic coverings.

Although they’re “particularly effective” at preventing large airborne respiratory droplets — which could result from a person nearby coughing or sneezing — they don’t do as good of a job with blocking smaller particles, as face shields don’t completely seal off the face.

“With smaller particles, they don’t travel like bullets, they hover in the air and below that face shield you’re still breathing in that air,” Edwards says.

However, while face shields can be helpful, and certainly won't hurt individuals who choose to use them, Edwards still recommends wearing masks — either alone, or in conjunction with the plastic coverings.

“From a purely scientific point of view, if you asked me, a surgical grade mask versus a shield, I would wear a mask,” he says, noting that “hospital grade, surgical N95” masks are “obviously best” at preventing the spread of COVID-19, though they should be reserved for medical professionals and other frontline workers.

A recent study determined that multi-layered sewn cloth masks are the second most effective option — and Edwards agrees that the more layers the better. “The science here is really straightforward,” Edwards explains. “You want a layered mask that has a very small pore size, that fits tightly to the face.”

Pretty young mom in medical face mask talking joyfully with her lovely daughter while holding her in train station
Mom and daughter wearing face masks. Getty

Another option that’s on the rise are masks with clear plastic or vinyl centers, which make the mouth visible, and can be particularly useful when communicating, especially with people who are hearing-impaired.

Although these masks can help aid social interactions, as they have not yet been tested for effectiveness, Edwards cautions against relying on them for protection.

“Any kind of integration of a plastic material that is otherwise kind of impenetrable to particles, you want to just know that the seal is good,” he says.

“I think the psychology of the pandemic is to want to wear something that looks great, but I think there’s a danger for sure that these masks aren’t effective,” he adds. “Anything with an open flap is probably a bad idea.”

Although there is currently no data on the effectiveness of masks with a plastic center, John Whyte, MD, the Chief Medical Officer at WebMD and an MSNBC healthcare correspondent, has said that the windowed masks could potentially offer even more protection due to the plastic center — and might prevent some people from taking their masks off during conversations in an effort to be understood better.

“I love to see these other [mask] iterations because anything that’s going to help people wear it, it’s going to be a good thing,” he recently told PEOPLE, pointing out the importance of people finding a face covering they’ll actually wear.

A group of researchers at Florida Atlantic University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science recently found that without any mask, the droplets from a cough traveled more than 8 feet — past even the recommended 6 feet for social distancing.

Although tightly-fitted respirator mask is best for protecting a person and anyone around them, a recent study found that the risk of coronavirus transmission went down by 85 percent when people wore a mask.

“At this point masking is really important, washing hands is really important, social distancing is really important. Anything is better than nothing,” Edwards tells PEOPLE.

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a GoFundMe.org fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.

Updated by
Julie Mazziotta

Julie Mazziotta is the Sports Editor at PEOPLE, covering everything from the NFL to tennis to Simone Biles and Tom Brady. She was previously an Associate Editor for the Health vertical for six years, and prior to joining PEOPLE worked at Health Magazine. When not covering professional athletes, Julie spends her time as a (very) amateur athlete, training for marathons, long bike trips and hikes.

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