Face shields may be better than homemade masks. Here's why we should all try one on.

Emergency services nurses at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle demonstrate how they wear medical face shields.Ted S. Warren/AP
  • Face masks are being touted as a way to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus around the world, when physical distancing isn't possible.
  • But surgical masks were never really designed to catch or trap viruses, and they're also not as readily available, or easy to clean as face shields, which also provide a lot of protection against spreading virus particles.
  • Here are a few of the best reasons you may want to consider trading in your mask for a clear shield, according to doctors.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Wearing a mask to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in public has quickly become the norm in cities from New York, to Berlin.

In Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo has just promised to give out enough free, washable cloth masks for everyone in the city to have one, as the city of lights prepares to reopen.

But as people around the world weigh the best ways to slowly move back into public life, a team of three doctors and public health experts from Iowa City is respectfully suggesting that perhaps the shield may be mightier than the mask. Advertisement

"Could a simple and affordable face shield, if universally adopted, provide enough added protection when added to testing, contact tracing, and hand hygiene to reduce transmissibility below a critical threshold?" they asked, in a JAMA opinion article released on Wednesday.

Here's why plastic shields, which are already a critical piece of protective gear for many hospital workers, may be a better disease-fighting tool than a mask, for venturing out in public:

Ruobing Su/Business Insider
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"Face shields come in various forms, but all provide a clear plastic barrier that covers the face," Doctors Eli Perencevich, Daniel Diekema, and Michael Edmond wrote in their JAMA Viewpoint. "For optimal protection, the shield should extend below the chin anteriorly, to the ears laterally, and there should be no exposed gap between the forehead and the shield's headpiece."

Shields eliminate the need for those who want to communicate with deaf and hard of hearing people to create little windows in their masks, since they're already see-through. They're also being manufactured en masse, by everyone from Nike to Apple, Ford, and Harvard University. Though studies on face shields are scarce, one cough simulation study in 2014 suggested that a shield could reduce a person's viral exposure to a cough expelled less than 18 inches away by 96%.Advertisement

Remember, masks are not a very well-tested virus-catching solution, either, nor do all experts think we should be wearing them.

When Business Insider recently surveyed 15 leading public health experts about whether masks are a good idea for the general public, the consensus was not unanimous. Many worried that homemade masks may provide a false sense of protection, and nudge people to get closer to others than they otherwise would, when they're social distancing without masks.

"What we don't understand is what does it do for behavior?" Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, recently told Business Insider about masks.Advertisement

Even face mask researcher and professor Ben Cowling, who studies infectious disease control at the University of Hong Kong, and wears a mask when he's in public, says masks are not a perfect solution, and it's worth considering new ways of protecting ourselves when out and about.

"I can imagine that we could find something even better than a surgical mask, because the surgical mask wasn't designed especially for this purpose," he said. "They weren't designed to stop respiratory virus transmission specifically, although they do work quite well."

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