Can Face Shields Protect Me the Same as a Regular Mask?

Protecting yourself from pathogens requires careful consideration of the number of routes pathogens can take to infection. Although some pathogens are commonly spread by touch or blood exposure, some can float through the air or be transmitted by tiny droplets that can be launched several feet when someone coughs or sneezes.

Face shields have emerged as an important tool in public health and disease prevention. However, they are usually not as effective as regular 3-ply or N95 masks due to the mechanisms through which airborne and droplet disease spreads. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends wearing a face mask in addition to a shield. Since cloth masks have limited effectiveness, plastic face shields should be paired with 3-ply, N95, or KN95 masks.

Face Shield Designs

Face shields attach to the wearer’s head using a plastic headband. This usually covers part of the user’s forehead, with the clear face shield in front extending down over the face. The shield covers the eyes, nose, and mouth with some protection from airborne particles.

The overall distance the shield covers varies, but most cover the face and extend well past the chin. There is also a wide variation in how much horizontal coverage each face shield offers. Many have designs that wrap around the sides of the face nearly to the ears, but others are only focused on frontal coverage.

As a general rule, the face shield’s clear plastic hangs about 2” in front of the user’s face. A plastic curve is attached from the inside of the forehead piece to the clear plastic sticking directly to the user’s forehead. This leaves enough room for the user to breathe comfortably without the face shield fogging up.

How Masks Work

3-ply masks have three layers that filter a high percentage of particles. Although no masks have 100% effective filtration for pathogens, the layering keeps a majority of small particles out. They also offer some fluid resistance, so airborne fluids that land on them are unlikely to penetrate quickly.

However, 3-ply masks were originally designed to keep the wearer’s pathogens from contaminating other people, not the other way around. This means that 3-ply masks are not sufficient for properly protecting the wearer from others’ infectious diseases.

N95 and KN95 masks offer more protection by keeping 95% of particles around 0.3 microns in diameter from penetrating. These masks fit the face more closely than 3-ply masks and are appropriate for reducing the spread of diseases to healthcare workers and other individuals who may be exposed to ill patients.

Masks were shown to be effective in slowing the spread of COVID-19. Although cloth face coverings work to block some particles, some types of material are not nearly as effective as surgical masks and other medical-grade masks in preventing transmission.

Transmission of Airborne Particles

Some airborne particles are easily absorbed through the eyes, which have permeable membranes susceptible to pathogens. This is part of the reason why goggles are so important to surgeons and many scientists who work with chemicals or substances that could become airborne.

However, some airborne particles are more easily inhaled through the nose or mouth. The nose tries to filter out these particles, but there is a limit to how effective it is, especially since mucus membranes inside the nose can absorb some particles.

Studies show that face shields can help protect healthcare workers from large airborne particles when the worker is within 18 inches of the patient. This makes them an excellent choice for situations when social distancing is not feasible. However, very small respiratory droplets can remain airborne and be inhaled around a face shield, even if it fits securely.

Protective Face Shields

Optimal PPE Usage

The problem with relying on a face shield alone is that it’s very easy for airborne particles to travel up inside it. Your breathing sucks air around the edge of and up under the face shield, so airborne bacteria can still get through.

Because of this, face shields are primarily intended to protect the user from airborne droplets like saliva and mucus. These droplets weigh too much to remain airborne for long and tend to fly outwards. The rigid and impermeable surface of face shields is perfect for protecting from this type of droplet.

When droplets like this land on a face mask, the face mask may not be able to fully repel it, even if it’s a 3-ply or N95 face mask. Instead, the droplet may soak into the mask material slightly, causing potential contamination to your hands when you try to remove the mask. Because of this, face shields and face masks work well when worn together.

Who Should Wear a Face Shield?

Despite their limitations, face shields are an important addition to the PPE supply at various locations and businesses. Even if they are not used daily, they can come in handy for several different purposes.

Face shields are essential in healthcare facilities or wards where patients are coughing or sneezing. Even if the patient is wearing a mask, you want to be prepared if the patient suddenly removes the mask or you need to remove it yourself.

Face shields may even come in handy when performing surgeries with a high risk of exposure to patient fluids. Goggles may also work well for eye protection, but for full protection of the face, nothing beats an eye shield paired with a face mask.

Face shields can even be used during arts and crafts or science activities, similar to goggles. Since some industrial fluids or paints can irritate the face, a face mask is a great option for preventing contact with the skin. It’s especially important to use a face mask if you are allergic to a particular material or have a history of skin sensitivities.

Just like wearing a 3-ply or N95 mask, face shields require proper removal and care to be as effective as possible. The best way to keep yourself protected is to remove the face shield carefully while still wearing gloves, to avoid touching contaminated surfaces on the front or back of the shield. Try to remove it while grasping only the headband at the back of the shield if possible.

If you work in a hospital, you should have an assigned place for used face shields so they can be sanitized. In other settings, you may need to carefully sanitize your shield yourself using disinfecting wipes. Make sure to wash your hands thoroughly afterward, even if you wore gloves while sanitizing the mask.

Sourcing the PPE You Need

Navigating all of the PPE options available can be tricky, especially if you don’t usually have to worry about infectious diseases. No matter what kind of challenges your organization faces, you can rely on ICU Production for your PPE needs.

We provide gloves, masks, face shields, goggles, hand sanitizer, and other essentials for maintaining a safe environment. We understand the market and can work to provide you with supplies even when these goods are in high demand. Call our PPE hotline at (323) 970-3819 so one of our team members can assist you.