Do Face Shields Keep You Safer Than Face Masks?

Face shields and face masks have different advantages in preventing the spread of coronavirus.

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As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, many of us have gotten used to wearing face masks during our daily outdoor activities. But there are also real downsides to face masks, which can easily be worn incorrectly and can be uncomfortable on long, hot days. Lately, more and more people are exploring another option: the face shield, a device with a plastic sheet that covers your entire face and leaves a little more breathing room. But are face shields as effective as face masks in preventing the spread of coronavirus? Should you be swapping out your mask for a shield at your earliest opportunity? We consulted doctors to find out the advantages and disadvantages of wearing face shields.

First off, it's important to note that if you're already wearing a face mask or other cloth covering, you're following CDC guidelines and don't necessarily have to change your routine. "People who are frustrated with the changing recommendations may correctly state that first no masks were recommended, then cloth masks were recommended, and now face shields? Their frustration is understandable," says Leann Poston, MD, a licensed physician who works as a medical expert for Ikon Health. "Living in the middle of a science experiment, especially when the outcome can be very serious, can try anyone's nerves."

Nevertheless, Poston acknowledges that there are plenty of benefits to wearing face shields, which she notes can be washed more easily, don't sit directly on your skin, keep you from touching your face, and allow your facial expressions to be seen and your lips to be read. Most importantly: "Face shields that completely cover the face from forehead to chin and extend to both ears may do a better job than masks at stopping the viral spread," she says.

Other doctors are inclined to agree. Nikola Djordjevic, MD, co-founder of HealthCareers, says, "Face shields are definitely the way to go if you can get a hold of one and don't mind wearing it. The reason they are more effective is that the plastic blocks any direct droplets that might come your way." Face masks, on the other hand, may not filter out all the droplets you encounter.

And that's by design. As Poston notes, "The purpose of a face mask is to contain the wearer's secretions. They were never designed to protect the wearer from any viruses or bacteria, but instead, to protect everyone else from the wearer's secretions." Face masks work in stopping the spread of coronavirus when everyone is wearing them to keep everyone else safe.

female supermarket cashier wearing a face mask and a face shield
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So, should you make the switch from face masks to face shields? Not necessarily. While doctors concede that face shields may offer more benefits of protection to the wearer, Djordjevic admits that they can "feel a bit bulky," which means they could also be uncomfortable for an all-day outing. Furthermore, they might not provide complete protection in all scenarios. "Face shields are open on the sides, providing some possibility for aerosols and small particles to float in," says Renee Matthews, MD, host of Out of Office With Dr. Renee.

Some doctors also believe that face shields, like surgical grade masks, should be reserved for medical professionals only. "Everyone wearing a face shield is just not practical—face shields are used by healthcare workers in hospital settings when they're in close contact with [patients]," says family and emergency doctor Janette Nesheiwat, MD. "Personal protective equipment [PPE] are a true necessity and priority for healthcare workers. Many healthcare workers have become ill without proper PPE, and we cannot allow this to happen, especially if we may see a second wave of coronavirus."

If you do decide to invest in a face shield, that doesn't mean you have to completely abandon your face mask. Matthews, citing the limitations of both, suggests wearing them in tandem for "the best protection." Poston, however, isn't convinced, saying that she'd need to see a study on the benefits of wearing a face shield and a face mask at the same time before she advocated doing so.

"I would not recommend both, unless you are in a location where there is expected to be a high viral load in the air, such as a health care setting," Poston says. Ultimately, she believes it's up to individuals to decide, and both face masks and face shields are useful tools in the fight against COVID-19: "I would recommend wearing one or the other when social distancing is not feasible." And if you're trying to decide what face covering is right for you, here's Every Face Mask You Can Buy—Ranked by Effectiveness.

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