Comparison of the effectiveness of face shields and surgical masks

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness caused by a new pathogen, the SARS-CoV-2. The uncertainty surrounding this virus has led to panic and fear in the citizens of the United States, who began to buy medical supplies in bulk and wholesale, with lots of them being for sale online at the start of the year to the general public.

By now, shortages have led to them being prioritized to healthcare providers only, but one item that’s been easy to find are face shields. Many people wonder if they’re more, less, or equally effective as surgical masks, and we’ll discuss this in this article.

Surgical masks

Surgical face masks are disposable face masks that act primarily as a physical barrier between the person wearing the mask, specifically their mouth and nose, and the particles in the environment that can be dangerous to them. They can be labeled as surgical, medical, or dental, depending on the procedures they’re used for. Like N95 masks, they’re disposable, and shouldn’t be shared. They can be worn with face shields for more protection.

They’re usually called ‘regular’ face masks, but this doesn’t mean any type of face mask is a surgical mask. These are tightly regulated, with varying levels of thickness and protection, specifically towards fluids. They’re designed to protect the user from fluid splashes, splatter, droplets, or aerosols, which may contain harmful particles. Preventing them from reaching the mouth and nose is a great way to make sure they can infect the wearer. In the same way, the masks also prevent the wearer from releasing fluids into the air, which is important during certain medical, surgical, or dental procedures.

As a filter, surgical masks don’t filter small particles like dust, smoke, or the flu virus, like N95 respirators do. They can only filter out larger particles, so they act primarily as a physical barrier and filter large particles. Their loose fit around the mouth and nose also makes leakage possible, so the protection isn’t complete.

Just like any other disposable face mask, they’re designed to be discarded after use, if it gets damaged or wet, or if the user is having difficulty breathing. Washing your hands before and after handling the mask is recommended.

Face shields

Face shields are part of the personal protective equipment (PPE) of various work industries. It's a see-through material, often using plastic for this, that is worn around the face to protect the user from diseases carried by fluids entering the mucous membranes. The clear material acts like a shield around the face, hence the name, which protects not only the mouth and nose, but the eyes as well, from the splashes of bodily fluids from other people that can contain pathogens, and the other way around.

They’re primarily used during dental or medical procedures, and have gained more importance during the coronavirus pandemic. The fluids it protects the user from include blood and respiratory secretions, among others, which can contain a wide variety of microorganisms that cause diseases, like viruses or bacteria. Other industries use other types of face shields for protection against impact hazards, like flying chips or fragments, among others.

As we mentioned, they’ve been used widely by healthcare providers and the general public as well during the pandemic, for increased protection around the mouth and nose, and additional protection for the eyes as well, which isn’t offered by face masks. The coronavirus isn’t the only pathogen that can be transmitted through fluids and cause a disease by reaching the mucous membranes of the eyes, mouth, and nose, but it’s been a constant threat among healthcare providers, calling for this extra protection to be placed on them at all times during work.

Worn together

As we mentioned above, the new species of coronavirus causes a respiratory infectious disease that’s been called COVID-19. This illness can be anywhere from an asymptomatic case to a lethal one, depending on the group of people it affects and the presence of risk factors. This virus is transmitted through fluids in the form of droplets, and when they enter the body, it starts replicating and colonizing the person’s respiratory tract.

Since the virus can also enter the body through the eyes, adding a face shield to face masks is a good option to add protection for the eyes as well. It also doubles up the protection offered by the face mask to the mouth and nose, preventing large amounts of liquid from reaching them, and vice versa. But, it’s important to always keep in mind that face shields are not substitutes for surgical masks or N95 masks like the 3M N95 mask in the models 3M 8210 and 3M 8511, as well as KN95 masks.

Face shields are only effective when worn with a face-covering, including reusable cloth masks, and by themselves offer little protection against COVID-19, with no proof available that they can prevent the spread of the virus. Since they’re open on the sides and under the shield, the air can go through these open areas unfiltered, and the virus can still reach the mouth and nose if no face mask is being worn. Wearing a face shield without a face mask isn’t effective, and they can substitute any type of face-covering.

In the USA it’s been recommended by authorities like the CDC to wear any type of face-covering, including kids with face masks in a smaller size. Anyone who uses a type of antiviral face protection is doing their best effort to help their community, helping healthcare workers manage the situation better, and protecting the most vulnerable ones among us.

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