Face shields vs. masks: What to wear on an airplane during the coronavirus pandemic

As mask rules have caused some controversy on U.S. airlines in recent months, Qatar Airways is taking an even stronger stance by requiring economy passengers and cabin crew to wear both face masks and face shields on board.

In its recent announcement, the airline says it will provide passengers with a complimentary kit of disposable protective gear that includes a shield, surgical mask, gloves and hand sanitizer gel.

Anyone refusing to wear a face shield during the boarding process will not be allowed to travel on the flight, the company said.

The requirement does not apply to passengers in first- or business-class cabins, who will be “asked to wear their face shield and mask onboard at their own discretion, as they enjoy more space and privacy,” according to Qatar Airways’s website.

While health experts still encourage people to avoid nonessential travel while the number of coronavirus cases continues to rise, some say the shield provides more protection from contracting or spreading the virus than wearing a mask alone.

We asked health experts to share their insights on whether shields should be worn while traveling and how to properly use one if you do.

Face shields offer more protection than a mask.

Face shields are a physical barrier that can provide travelers an extra layer of protection, according to Nahid Bhadelia, the medical director of the Special Pathogens Unit at the Boston University School of Medicine.

“I’m glad to see that a lot of airlines have mandated the use of masks, and the use of face shields is even better,” Bhadelia said.

While non-medical masks are generally more helpful in protecting others from the respiratory droplets you may be spreading, Bhadelia says a face shield is a better protection from droplets coming your way.

“The face shield is great if someone is sitting next to you and expelling on you,” she said.

Unlike a mask, a shield can prevent harmful respiratory droplets from getting into your eyes, too.

Wearing a shield “could help to even make it easier for you to protect your mucous membranes,” said Christopher Sulmonte, the project administrator for the Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit. “In addition to protecting the eyes in general, it’s a great deterrent, actually, from touching your face because you kind of forget that it’s there.”

While there’s no guarantee a shield will protect travelers on planes, Eli Perencevich, an infectious-disease physician at the University of Iowa and the Iowa City Veterans Affairs Health Care System, says it’s smart for airline passengers to wear one along with a mask, because it provides the same coverage health-care workers rely on.

Shields come in different sizes, so find one that fits your head.

One face shield does not fit all. Perencevich says to make sure you get one that will cover your forehead (without a gap for particles to pass through from above), drape below your chin and stretch back to your ears.

“If it’s providing kind of a bubble around your face, the bigger the bubble the better,” said Perencevich, who published an opinion article this April in JAMA that outlined the potential benefits of wearing a shield during the pandemic.

If you buy a face shield model that allows you to tilt it up, be mindful about when you use that feature. Perencevich has seen people get into the habit of flipping their face shields up unnecessarily, “and that defeats the purpose,” he said.

You also need to resist the urge to reach under your face shield while you’re wearing it, to avoid potential contamination.

Wash your hands before wearing or removing a shield.

A shield is designed to protect you from potentially harmful particles flying through the air. That means your shield may become contaminated while you wear it in public.

Wash your hands before and after putting on your shield, and don’t forget to clean the device itself.

“You can easily remove a face shield and wash it with soap and water, or a Clorox wipe, and then your face mask is not contaminated, so it’s safer to touch your face,” Perencevich said. “If you keep the face shield down, wear it, and wash your hands before taking it off and after taking it off — anytime you touch something — then you should be pretty reasonably protected.”

A shield won’t eliminate your risks.

Even if you feel protected by the shield, it’s important to remember the reality of the pandemic when deciding whether you should travel at this time.

“Taking a flight is definitely a high-risk category,” Sulmonte said. “There’s low level of ability for social distancing, you’re in a confined space. … There could be potentially a high-level exposure just because in some situations we don’t know who is infected and who isn’t.”

With the coronavirus continuing to spread, Perencevich recommends people avoid the three C’s (crowding, closed spaces and contact) to protect yourself and others. At the airport and on the plane, maintain good hand hygiene and try to keep your distance from those outside your travel party.

“If you can’t, then wearing the [personal protective equipment] is the next best thing you can do,” Perencevich said.

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