Neck gaiter fails Duke mask test; industry wants re-test

A dozen of the 15 types of masks and face coverings tested at Duke University, including a surgical mask (1), an N95 mask with a valve (2), a gaiter-type neck fleece (11) and a double-layer bandana (12).

Emma Fischer, Duke University

The COVID-19 pandemic has been good for the neck gaiter business. Those tubes of fabric that people wear around their necks, usually to keep warm, also function as a mask by simply being pulled up over the nose and mouth.

But then researchers at Duke University published a study Friday that cast doubt on the use of neck gaiters to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The researchers tested 15 types of masks and face coverings, but news coverage of their study has largely focused on one, the gaiter.

That’s because the gaiter they tested actually seemed to make things worse. While the various masks, to some degree, prevented droplets of potentially virus-laden moisture from getting into the air when someone speaks, the gaiter turned the larger droplets into a cloud of smaller ones that hung in the air longer.

“The use of such a mask might be counterproductive,” the researchers wrote in their paper, published in the journal Science Advances. The headline on The Washington Post article Tuesday morning was more direct: “Wearing a neck gaiter may be worse than no mask at all, researchers find.”

Headlines like that have caused turmoil in the neck gaiter industry, which consists of hundreds of gaiter manufacturers and other companies that print art or words on the garments and sell them, said Chris Bernat.

Gaiters keeping businesses alive

Bernat works for Vapor Apparel based near Charleston, South Carolina, and sits on the board of the Printing United Alliance, a trade group that includes several textile companies. Vapor mostly sells sun-protection clothing but has seen sales of its gaiters rise 450% in the past two months as people use them as coronavirus masks, Bernat said in an interview.

“A lot of people in our industry are literally keeping their businesses alive with this,” he said.

But not all gaiters are alike, Bernat says. Better, thicker materials distinguish a high-quality gaiter from what he calls a “giveaway gaiter,” one meant more for promotion than clothing.

“I have a feeling that whatever gaiter was in their lab was probably a giveaway gaiter,” he said.

Bernat said he reached out to the Duke researchers to see if they would test higher-quality gaiters made by his company, confident that they would perform better at preventing droplets from getting through.

He had not heard back as of Tuesday afternoon.

‘Pretty thin’ material

Martin Fischer, the Duke physicist who designed the study, noted Monday that they tested only one neck gaiter, made of polyester mixed with a little spandex. In an interview, he described the material as “pretty thin” and said it got thinner when you stretch it over your mouth and nose.

Fischer said the study was never meant to be a comprehensive test of all masks and mask materials. Instead, the Duke researchers wanted to show how easy it is to test the effectiveness of the wide variety of masks that people are wearing to protect themselves and others from coronavirus.

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, hospitals during the coronavirus outbreak. He’s been a reporter or editor for 33 years, including the last 21 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.


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