Do Plastic Face Shields Actually Do Anything?

Julia Malacoff

Months into the coronavirus pandemic, wearing a fabric face mask or covering in public has become the status quo. But as personal protective gear becomes a daily staple, people are beginning to experiment with not just fashion-forward masks, but also other face covering options. 

Enter: The plastic face shield, also known as a face visor. 

Early on in the pandemic, you may have only seen these shields in images of hospital workers. But just like face masks, they’re becoming more commonplace. Influencers are wearing them in street style photos. You might even see people wearing them at the grocery store.

But how much protection do plastic face shields provide, and is it a good idea to wear one? Here’s what you need to know. 

Do plastic face shields protect from the coronavirus? 

Experts agree plastic face visors may provide some level of protection.

Quick recap: the new coronavirus and COVID-19, the illness it causes, are primarily spread through respiratory droplets, which come out of your mouth and nose when you breathe, talk, sneeze, sing, and so on. 

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So the main goal of wearing a surgical mask, or a mask with a filter, is to prevent those droplets from getting into your mouth and nose. (Cloth face masks and coverings work by preventing people from spreading respiratory droplets to others.) Masks and face coverings also have the benefit of reminding people not to touch their faces — which is another way the virus can spread. 

But you may be able to get COVID-19 through your eyes, as well. “Theoretically, the virus of COVID-19 could arrive to the eyes and travel down through our tear ducts into the nose and throat,” explains Stephen Berger, M.D., a double board-certified infectious disease specialist and microbiologist, and founder of GIDEON, the Global Infectious Disease and Epidemiology Online Network. This route of infection hasn’t been proven, but is suspected to be how some people get the virus. 

“A recent research analysis shows face shields might protect you from catching COVID-19 through your eyes,” explains Arefa Cassoobhoy, M.D., MPH, Senior Medical Director at WebMD.  “Also, there’s evidence from research with the flu virus that face shields may partially block breathing in droplets of the virus, especially when it’s combined with keeping a six-foot physical distance from others.” Though the flu virus and the coronavirus are different, this research shows face shields may help prevent some spread through respiratory droplets in general. 

But because there’s so much uncertainty about the coronavirus in general, not all experts are convinced face shields are a good idea. “Plastic visors and shields do not filter air, and at most, prevent larger droplets of infectious material from arriving to our face directly,” Dr. Berger explains. 

What’s more, Dr. Berger says the user might have a false sense of security while wearing a face shield and abandon other rules of social distancing. He also emphasizes that in order to be fully protected while wearing a shield, the wearer needs a face mask that filters air, as well. 

Okay, but should you actually wear one?

At the moment, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend wearing a face shield, Dr. Cassoobhoy points out. “To prevent the spread of COVID-19, you should continue physical distancing measures including wearing a cloth face mask, keeping a minimum of six-feet distance from others outside the home, avoiding large gatherings, and practicing good hand hygiene.”

“But, it’s reasonable to add a face shield if you want an extra layer of protection, especially if you’re in a high-risk situation, like caring for someone sick with COVID-19 or working in an environment that requires close contact with others,” Dr. Cassoobhoy says.

Another time a shield might be helpful? “If you’re exercising outside and aren’t comfortable wearing a face mask, a face shield could be an option to add some level of protection.” 

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Another benefit is that unlike medical face masks, it’s been easier to ramp up production of face shields to meet the demand of medical workers and the public, according to Dr. Cassoobhoy. So if you choose to wear one, you’re not likely taking supply away from essential workers. 

There are a few other reasons face shields may become the new norm, according to Debbie Goff, PharmD, Infectious Disease Specialist and Professor of Pharmacy at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. First, it’s really hard to touch your face while wearing one of these things. “They are also eco-friendly, since they can be cleaned and reused,” Goff says.

Lastly, face shields, when worn alone, allow us to see facial expressions. This is crucial for anyone who is hearing impaired and reads lips.  

How to wear a plastic face shield the right way:

If you decide to add face shields to your personal protective routine, there are a few things to keep in mind. 

“The face shield’s clear plastic should extend across your face to both ears, and down well below the chin,” Dr. Cassoobhoy says. “There should not be any gap between your forehead and the headpiece. There are many varieties available, choose one that is comfortable, reusable, and easy to clean with soap and water.” 

And when you remove it, be sure not to touch the front of the plastic shield, Goff advises. “Just touch the back of the strap around the forehead.” Once you’ve taken it off, wash the shield with soap and water, set aside, then wash your hands

The coronavirus pandemic is unfolding in real time, and guidelines change by the minute. We promise to give you the latest information at time of publishing, but please refer to the CDC and WHO for updates.

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