Masks or face shields: which offer better protection against Covid-19?

We asked medical experts

23 August 2020 - 00:03 By sanet oberholzer
Wearing something is better than nothing, experts say.
Wearing something is better than nothing, experts say.
Image: 123RF/Olga Vitvitskaia

As an increasing number of people are starting to wear face shields instead of masks, the question is: how effective is a face shield at keeping you safe?

Dr Susan Louw, a haematopathologist at SA's National Health Laboratory Service, says there are still certain concerns around wearing a face shield in public without a mask.

"Whether it's better or equally safe to just wear a shield, I don't think that's been completely elucidated," says Louw. "When you're wearing a mask you're also protecting your fellow human beings against you sneezing and coughing and transmitting the virus to them. A face shield might still allow virus to escape and infect the person standing next to you."

Professor Wolfgang Preiser, head of the division of medical virology in Stellenbosch University's department of pathology, agrees that face shields are on average less protective for other people than non-medical cloth masks.

"As long as the other rules, especially keeping safe distances of at least 1m, better 1.5m or 2m, are observed, visors add an extra degree of protection but, where feasible, masks are preferable," Preiser says.

Face shields do, however, offer an advantage in protecting the eyes as a potential source of infection and allow people to see your lips, something we may not have realised is such an important part of communication before we started wearing masks, especially for the deaf community.

Face shields are more comfortable than masks. For this reason, Louw thinks face shields might be a better option for smaller children between the ages of one and six.

"In some situations visors can be worn on top of masks," Preiser says, adding that this would be ideal for restaurant staff.

In the medical field, health-care workers in close contact with people are wearing both masks and face shields.

Louw advises that, if you are going to be wearing only a shield, it needs to come to below your chin and wrap around your face completely.

"There are pros and cons to both. Wearing something is better than nothing," Louw advises. "Shields should be reserved for the medical fraternity who use both a face mask and a face shield. At the moment it should be cloth masks for the public."

Disposable face shields should be worn only once and reusable face shields need to be properly cleaned.