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Editor’s note: As we will report below, experts agree that face shields — and face masks — do not replace or relieve the need to wash your hands and social distance, and they absolutely do not alone prevent the spread of COVID-19.
As cases surge across the country, more than half of U.S. states require wearing face coverings while in public to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Many retailers have begun selling non-medical masks and masks with extra protection, like insertable filters or antimicrobial materials. Another new protective trend? Face shields. Shields comprise an often curved plate of plastic that hovers over the face, held in place by an adjustable strap worn around the head. Face shields range in style and design, from tinted plastic covers to baseball hats with a shield addition. But do you need a face shield? Are they more effective than masks? If you’re looking for more protection or a less restrictive face covering, we’ve consulted medical experts to break down how face shields work and how to best shop for one.
How do face shields work?
Face shields basically involve curved plastic that protects your eyes or face from infection. They are typically used by healthcare workers for certain procedures where “splash or splatter is likely,” as is the case when a dentist performs a teeth cleaning, explains David McKnight, MD, a clinical professor in primary care and population health at Texas A&M University. Shields are also often used for safety in hardware and home improvement projects.
Face shields do not prevent spread of COVID-19, but can help reduce transmission. Face shields can block large particulates from getting into your eyes and mouth, said McKnight.
“The goal is that if you sneeze or cough, a face shield minimizes the distance that the aerosol travels,” he said, adding that, in doing so, you’ll be “hopefully lowering the risk of transmitting it to someone in the vicinity.”
Wearing a face shield may make you less likely to touch your face with unwashed — and potentially contaminated — hands, too. Typically, face shields are single use, but can sometimes be cleaned with plain soap and warm water and recycled for future use, said Joe Suyama, MD, chief of Emergency Medicine at UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital.
Should you get a face shield?
Face shields can be an additional layer of protection against COVID-19, along with wearing a face mask, practicing safe social distancing and washing your hands regularly. Shields do not replace face masks, as they do not fit to your face and effectively block respiratory droplets from the air around you, said Suyama. Experts agree the face shields should be worn only with a face mask, not on their own.
“Most face shields do not cover the mouth and nose well enough to trap particles that wearers expel,” said Kathryn Jacobsen, a professor in global health epidemiology at George Mason University. “Face shields also usually do not have filters that reduce the risk of the user breathing in viral particles.”
For the record, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend face shields for everyday activities as a substitute for cloth face coverings, as it’s unknown if they actually provide protection. A 2014 study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene did find face shields reduced exposure to inhaling cough droplets by up to 96 percent. But the author, William Lindsley, a research biomedical engineer at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, previously told NBC News cloth masks do a better job protecting you against a virus.
"A face shield is good against the really big stuff [particles] that you can kind of see,” he said. “But as the stuff gets smaller and smaller, it's just easy for that to go around the face shield and be inhaled."
Shields can also be bulkier than masks, said McKnight, making it more uncomfortable for the wearer (and consequently more likely for them to take it off). Keep in mind that face shields also don’t meet the criteria for a face covering in all states, so you’ll need to check your local requirements before wearing one in public without a mask.
How to shop for the right face shield
Most face shields are made with plastic, though some materials can be more rigid than others, and some are more scratch-resistant. Shields that are more durable will last longer. Clarity is one of the most important aspects to look for — you want to be able to see through the shield, said McKnight.
Many online retailers have pivoted to making face shields in addition to masks. You may also be able to find shields in home improvement, hardware and medical supply stores, said McKnight.
Best face shields to shop
Below we’ve compiled face shields to buy online, whose listed features include the expert guidance we share above.
This plastic face shield is attached to acrylic glasses frames, to sit more comfortably on your face than an adjustable strap. The shield can be easily cleaned and frames can easily fit over most eyeglasses.
These plastic face shields come in dozens of family-friendly designs, including a ladybug, football player and unicorn. Shields can be used with goggles and face masks, and they come in adult and kids sizes. Shields come with a Velcro strap for an adjustable fit, and are hand-washable.
These stylish pink hats come with a removable plastic face shield. Hats come with an adjustable strap and are hand-washable. Shields cover the sides of your face and stretch to below the chin.
These face shields come in packs of two and cover your entire face. Shields are made of transparent, recyclable plastic and can protect your face from spray, splatter and dust. A soft sponge material sits on the headband for forehead comfort, and the elastic band can be easily adjusted. Shields can be washed with water or disinfectant.
These one-size-fits-all shields are optical-grade, high-clarity plastic lens. The strap is adjustable and can be worn comfortably over a face mask and eyeglasses. The visor curves around the face and completely covers you, from forehead to chin.
These soft plastic shields are attached to a bucket hat, with almost complete coverage of your face and neck. Hats come in Blue, Black, Pink or Khaki and are one size fits all.
These face shields fit securely to your forehead and are made of plastic. They can be worn with face masks and glasses underneath, and have an adjustable head strap with a cushioned foam bar. Vistaprint recommends discarding the shield after one use, and shields are sold in packs of 10.