Until this week, Nate Favini, MD, often wore a neck gaiter on his daily runs. He also avoided saying hello to people, instead opting to "wave, and sort of bow my head to say thank you if they moved out of the way for me." He took these precautions in order to minimize the spread of COVID-19, which can be passed via respiratory droplets exhaled when you speak, or cough, or sneeze. But this morning, he switched up this routine, ditching the gaiter for a proper mask.
The reason for the change: On Tuesday, August 11, a study was published that looked into the effectiveness of 14 different types of face masks. And the results seemed to indicate that certain neck gaiters might be worse than not wearing a face covering at all, says Warren S. Warren, Ph.D., one of the study's co-authors and a professor of chemistry at Duke University.
“We found there were instances where somebody wearing a gaiter or bandana emitted more droplets than they did not wearing it,” Warren says. “The only way that’s possible is because the loose weave of the fabric is breaking up bigger droplets into smaller ones. That’s bad, because big droplets tend to fall to the ground very quickly, and smaller droplets go for a longer distance.” That's right — we may have been better off going bare-faced than we were wearing our gaiters.
That's not to say that Warren is recommending running sans face covering, especially if you live in a more densely populated area. But ditch the gaiter for a more effective option. “This morning I went running and wore a surgical mask instead,” says Dr. Favini, the medical lead at Forward, a preventive primary care practice. “It can be hard to run with something covering your mouth and it can make breathing more challenging, but it does matter to protect those around you.” If you prefer a reusable option, the study found that cotton masks were nearly as effective as surgical masks.
In general, Warren says, the more breathable a mask is, the less you should trust it — bad news for runners, who have been relying on airier coverings to get them through hot-weather runs. That doesn't mean your mask has to be stifling, but: “My personal rule of thumb is that if I can see through the mask when it is stretched the way it would be on your face, it probably isn’t doing a whole lot of good,” Warren says.
He also recommends getting a mask with a strap that wraps around your head instead of looping over your ears; the former stays in place better when you’re active. And while Warren says you should keep one on while running amongst people, he notes that it’s fine to pull the covering down when you’re in an isolated area.
If you, like Dr. Favini, had been using a neck gaiter as a mask on your runs, there's no need to lose sleep, says Preeti N. Malani, MD, Chief Health Officer at the University of Michigan. “The thing is, if you’re outdoors and you were running alone, it’s probably okay,” Dr. Malani says. “Being outside is a lower risk environment.” Sure, switch to a surgical or cotton mask now — but don't let the news deter you from being active outdoors, if that's your usual routine.
“I’m worried there’s a group of people who’ll be afraid to go outside,” she says. “We need to keep in mind that there are other risks besides COVID. There’s loneliness, social isolation, and not getting exercise.”