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Though the U.S. government has achieved its goal of administering at least one dose of the Covid vaccine to 70 percent of American adults, the delta variant continues to wreak havoc across the country. As a result, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is now recommending indoor mask use in areas with high transmission rates, and major cities like New York are starting to require proof of vaccination for indoor activities.
With mask mandates back in place, many people are searching for new ways to stay protected as they consider returning to the office, getting back to school and traveling. One type of mask on the market is a neck gaiter, which is worn around the neck — historically for warmth, but more recently for protection against Covid. But just how effective is a gaiter compared to the other types of face masks out there? We spoke to doctors and health experts to learn more about what a gaiter is and when you should be wearing one (if ever), plus rounded up some options based on expert advice and CDC guidelines.
Are neck gaiters effective?
The CDC says that neck gaiters are an acceptable type of face mask so long as they have at least two layers or are folded into two layers. The major takeaway is that “more than one layer” is essential, noted Lisa Thanjan, MD, a public health physician on the Virginia Department of Health’s Covid-19 Health Information Team.
In our guide to KN95 face masks, Nina Shapiro, MD, professor of head and neck surgery at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, told us that KN95 masks are usually more protective against Covid than gaiters. And the research backs this up: The CDC and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) studied the efficacy of various masks on the market and found that while a N95 mask (the U.S. equivalent of a KN95 mask) blocked 99 percent of small aerosol particles, a polyester neck gaiter blocked 47 percent as a single layer and 60 percent when folded into two layers.
I would probably not encourage use of the gaiters, especially with the delta variant going around.
Michael Urban, OTD, Director, Doctorate of Occupational Therapy program, University of New Haven
Though neck gaiters are less effective than KN95 and N95 masks, the study concluded that they are able to “significantly” block Covid particles from entering the environment. Still, though, Michael Urban, OTD, senior lecturer and director of the Doctorate of Occupational Therapy program at the University of New Haven, doesn’t recommend them as an everyday face mask, especially if you’re going to be indoors for a long period of time.
“I would probably not encourage use of the gaiters, especially with the delta variant going around,” he said. However, neck gaiters can offer protection “in a pinch” if you’re going for a walk outside in a more crowded area, Urban noted. He’s also seen some of his students use them on top of CDC-approved masks when they have a lot of facial hair, as a beard can make it more difficult for a mask to fit properly.
Thanjan also noted that neck gaiters have some unique benefits for both the warmer and colder months thanks to the way they're designed. "Gaiters that provide cooling properties may be beneficial to people who spend a lot of time outdoors in the heat and some can also provide UV protection," she explained. "Other gaiters can provide the benefit of added warmth in the winter months." Ultimately, she said, "wearing a face covering is better than no mask at all."
If you do decide to wear a neck gaiter, all of the experts we spoke to emphasized the importance of either looking for one with two or three layers or folding ones with a single layer. Jin Pan, a graduate student at Virginia Tech, studied the potency of two-layer gaiters and folded single-layer gaiters. He found that both were somewhat effective against different sized aerosol droplets: The double-layer gaiter blocked around 50 percent of 1-micron particles, while the folded single-layer gaiter blocked more than 90 percent. (Though the actual Covid-19 virus particle is about 0.1 microns in size, it’s always bonded to something larger, like a 1-micron water droplet.)
Thanjan also said that it's important to pay attention to the "tightness of the weave." She said the Virginia Department of Health recommends holding the gaiter up to a "bright light source" and making sure the light doesn't seep through. If it does, the fabric is too thin to serve as proper protection.
Top-rated neck gaiters
If you’re looking for a neck gaiter, we compiled some highly rated options that meet the guidance of experts and align with CDC recommendations.
This polyester neck gaiter has three layers: two brushed polyester ones, and one composed of a washable and reusable MN 92 polypropylene filter. (On its website, the CDC recommends masks with inner filter pockets to prevent the spread of Covid.) According to the seller, the filter was shown in a lab to have a 92 percent particulate filtration efficiency. Additionally, the mask has a nose wire for a more secure fit and an adjustable sizing strap.
Available in S/M and L/XL, this fleece gaiter from Under Armour is designed specifically for movement and colder temperatures, according to the brand. It has three layers: A spacer fabric layer for structure and improved airflow, an open-cell foam layer to block particles and an antimicrobial UA Iso-Chill layer that feels cool on the skin.
If you plan on using a neck gaiter while walking around outside, this one from Etsy says it blocks 98 percent of UV rays and is designed to wick away moisture during the warmer months. This gaiter is designed to be used with replaceable PM2.5 activated carbon filters, and the brand says the filter should be replaced after 7 days at most.
This unisex neck gaiter also has a double-layered insert for disposable PM2.5 activated carbon filters. It’s designed with both an adjustable strap in the back and an adjustable nose bridge for a more secure fit.
This gaiter is 95 percent cotton and 5 percent spandex for a protective but slightly more comfortable fit. It has an optional filter pocket that you can fill with the reusable filter of your choice, and it comes in either Asphalt or Black.