Masks are common protective gear for the coronavirus.

Until there’s a vaccine for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, it will be important to take precautions to avoid getting sick. That’s especially true when there’s significant ongoing community transmission, as is now happening in much of the U.S.

The safest thing to do when transmission rates are high is to avoid contact with people outside your social bubble and to practice social distancing when you do have to go out. But for many people, that’s not always possible. And even when transmission rates are low enough for kids to go to school in person or for you to head to an office or a store, you’ll want to wear certain personal protective equipment (PPE). 

The one key piece of protective gear that everyone should wear out in public is a face mask, which will help slow the spread of the virus, says Luis Ostrosky, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in Houston and a spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA).

“It’s really noncontroversial from a science standpoint,” he says. “There’s no doubt that it works. It’s our most clear pathway out of this.”

But if you search for protective gear, along with masks you’ll see gloves and many forms of face and eye coverings for sale. Consumer Reports has consulted experts and reviewed the evidence to see when these various protective devices may be helpful—and when they’re not worth it or are even potentially harmful. 

Understanding Transmission

Different forms of protective equipment are necessary in different situations. A quick trip to the grocery store is different from spending a day in a school, which itself is far different from working directly with patients in a hospital.

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Medical workers should be following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For everyday life, however, the average person doesn’t need to suit up like an emergency room doctor. 

To understand why different levels of protection suit different scenarios, it is helpful to understand how the virus is transmitted from one person to another.

For a person to get sick, viral particles need to enter the mucous membranes of the nose, mouth, or eyes. While research is still emerging on which forms of transmission are most important, there’s growing consensus that there are three possible means of infection: infectious droplets, contaminated surfaces, and—more controversially—airborne aerosols (tiny particles that remain suspended in the air).

If an infected person coughs or sneezes on a supermarket shelf—or coughs into their hands and then touches a door handle or an elevator button—another person who touches that contaminated surface could then infect themselves by rubbing their eyes or scratching their nose.

Larger infectious droplets can be expelled when someone with the virus coughs or sneezes. Some can also be expelled when people yell, sing, or even talk. These droplets tend to fall to the ground within 6 feet, though a cough or sneeze may make them travel farther.

Until recently, the World Health Organization and the CDC attributed the majority of COVID-19 transmission to those two methods. And recently, the CDC has said that close contact between people is probably the main way the coronavirus spreads, with contaminated objects being a “possible” way to get infected.

But there’s a growing consensus among scientists that airborne transmission of the coronavirus is also possible, according to a letter to the WHO signed by 239 scientists. That greatly increases the risk that people can catch the virus indoors, especially in poorly ventilated areas, says Jose-Luis Jimenez, Ph.D., a professor of chemistry at the University of Colorado Boulder who conducts research on aerosol droplets and a signatory of the letter.

The coronavirus is “somewhat contagious through the air, not super-contagious like measles,” he says. If a person with measles walks into a room, someone who enters that room 2 hours later could still get sick. With COVID-19, transmission seems to be more likely when people interact more directly indoors or are breathing the same indoor air for an extended period of time. This may help explain some super-spreader events, such as those at church events, a choir practice, and a call center.

While the WHO has been slow to acknowledge airborne transmission, aerosol experts such as Jimenez are fairly convinced it’s an important way the virus is spreading. “We’re basically sure it happens,” he says. And that has an effect on the types of gear that are necessary. 

Gloves

Because we know that it may be possible to catch the coronavirus from touching contaminated surfaces, you might think that wearing gloves would be a good idea to help keep the virus off your hands. But while gloves are recommended for healthcare workers, most experts don’t recommend them for everyday use, like when you are at the store.

“Gloves give someone a false sense of security,” says Ravina Kullar, Pharm.D., an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist in Los Angeles, and a spokesperson for the IDSA. When running errands, people often keep gloves on for extended periods of time, touching dirty surfaces and then touching their face or phone with the contaminated gloves. Instead, when out and about, Kullar recommends carrying alcohol-based hand sanitizer for the times you can’t wash your hands with soap.

The Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology even has a resource called “Gloved Hands May Spread Germs” (PDF), designed to explain the serious limitations of gloves and why frequent hand-washing is a better bet.

The only times that people may want to wear gloves in everyday life, according to the CDC, are when they are caring for or cleaning up after someone who is sick, and when cleaning or disinfecting the home.

Goggles and Face Shields

Because the coronavirus can be transmitted through large infectious droplets and at least potentially by smaller airborne droplets, protecting your eyes with either goggles or a face shield may help prevent infection, both in healthcare settings and when out in public, according to a systematic review of the benefits of protective gear published in June in The Lancet.

Fifteen of the studies in that review evaluated the benefits of eye protection, usually along with a mask, and found that people who wore eye protection were significantly less likely to get sick.

But the right form of eye protection may depend on the scenario. When treating sick patients who are likely to cough or sneeze and expel projectile droplets, healthcare workers generally wear face shields as one part of their medical-quality PPE.

But face shields might not be the right choice for the general public, Jimenez says.

There’s not much public research on the efficacy of face shields for the general public, and the CDC does not currently recommend them for everyday use. The agency does say that they may offer a benefit if sustained face-to-face contact with another person is unavoidable.

Face shields or goggles should be used only with a mask, however, not as an alternative to one—some preliminary reports from a Swiss health department found that hospitality workers wearing face shields without masks were getting infected with the coronavirus.

Face shields don’t offer the best protection against aerosols because the heat of your body causes the air around you to rise, potentially carrying infectious aerosols up underneath a face shield, according to Jimenez. If you are looking for eye protection against aerosols lingering in the air, safety goggles may be a better bet, he says.

Goggles might be especially useful if you know you’ll have to be around other people indoors for an extended period of time—for teachers, for example, says Jimenez—even though they are not currently recommended by the CDC or the WHO.

Masks

Overwhelming evidence suggests that consistent mask-wearing by the general public can help slow the spread of COVID-19, which is why the CDC, the WHO, and health departments around the globe are recommending that people who live in areas with ongoing community transmission wear a face covering in public, especially when social distancing is not possible.

One CDC report documents the case of two hair stylists in Springfield, Mo., who directly interacted with 139 clients while infected with the coronavirus. The stylists both wore masks (one a two-layer cloth mask, the other either a cloth mask or a surgical mask) while working with clients, all of whom also wore masks during their appointments (mostly cloth masks and surgical masks). The county health department reported that none of the 139 clients developed signs or symptoms of COVID-19 over the next two weeks, and all of those who got tested had negative results.

Another July study in the journal JAMA found that once the Mass General Brigham hospital system adopted a policy of universal masking for patients along with healthcare workers, new cases among healthcare workers—which had been climbing, doubling every 3.6 days—began to decline.

Studies indicate that the biggest benefit of wearing a homemade cloth face covering is that doing so will help prevent you from spreading the virus to others because the masks reduce the chances you will spread infectious droplets and aerosols to the people around you. That is particularly important because a significant number of people infected with the coronavirus don’t display symptoms.

Surgical masks and particularly N95-grade masks do offer more protection for the wearer than cloth masks, but these should generally be reserved for use by healthcare workers.

It’s also worth noting that N95 masks that have an exhalation valve don’t protect other people from infection if you are sick and should not be worn around others during the pandemic.

The WHO recommends that sick people and people at high risk for complications from the coronavirus wear medical-grade surgical masks, but in the U.S., the CDC recommends cloth masks for all nonmedical personnel. And even though wearing a cloth mask is most important to protect others, it may offer you some limited protection too, Jimenez says, especially if the mask fits well, sealing off your nose and mouth as much as possible. (Read more about how to make or choose a cloth mask.)

On July 14, in an editorial in the journal JAMA, the CDC called for Americans to start wearing masks universally to slow the surge of coronavirus cases. The authors, including CDC director Robert Redfield, M.D., wrote: “At this critical juncture when COVID-19 is resurging, broad adoption of cloth face coverings is a civic duty, a small sacrifice reliant on a highly effective low-tech solution that can help turn the tide favorably in national and global efforts against COVID-19.”