Face Shields vs. Face Masks: What's the Best COVID-19 Protection for Kids?

Face shields alone don't provide the best protection against COVID-19, but when worn with face masks, they can provide an added layer of security. Here’s what parents need to know to keep their children safe.

Official mask-wearing guidance has evolved over the course of the pandemic. With mask mandates now all but lifted in the U.S., it's up to parents to decide when and how to navigate masks with their children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides guidelines on when masking is recommended, such as when traveling through airports and when indoors in areas with a high COVID-19 community level.

At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a lot of confusion about what face coverings were most appropriate for everyday Americans when it came to preventing the spread of COVID-19. These questions were complicated by a shortage of protective masks for health care workers on the front lines. With mask supply no longer a critical issue, parents have their pick when it comes to face coverings for their kids. So, how do face shields stack up against masks for kids?

The CDC's Mask Recommendations for Kids

As of February 2022, the CDC settled on the following mask guidance for children: If they are 2 years old or older and unvaccinated, they should continue to wear face masks indoors when in public; beyond that, parents should check the community level as well as consider their family's personal level of risk.

In terms of types of face coverings, there are lots of options. Respirators like N95s and KN95s are among the most protective (provided they fit properly) followed by disposable surgical masks and tightly woven cloth masks. While mask material certainly matters, experts say that fit is equally important. Parents should ensure that the mask fits snugly around their child's nose, mouth, and chin with no gaps that can let air with respiratory droplets leak in or out.

The problem is that many kids dislike face masks, finding them hot and uncomfortable especially when they are properly fitted to the face as the CDC recommends (ideally with a wire fitted to the bridge of the nose). Preventing gaps around the edges of the masks is essential, so some parents stack a disposable and cloth mask together or use a brace that frames the mask against the face, which can be great options but can also add another layer to their kids' objections. Still, other kids' masks require constant knotting to make them tighter and continue to fall off, defeating their primary purpose.

Frustrated, many parents have turned to face shields instead. These clear plastic barriers cover the entire face (including the eyes) and come in appealingly cute styles for kids. Unfortunately, the CDC does not recommend using them in place of masks.

In a press release issued near the height of the pandemic, its experts wrote, "At this time, it is not known what level of protection a face shield provides to people nearby from the spray of respiratory droplets from the wearer. There is currently not enough evidence to support the effectiveness of face shields for source control."

Newer studies have suggested that face shields offer impressive protection against tinier viral particles. But for a truly solid system, kids should combine them with masks that guard against getting or transmitting COVID-19.

Mother and son ready to go back to school wearing protective face masks and face shields
Juanmonino/Getty Images

The Pros of Face Shields

For kids, there are several advantages to wearing the curved plastic barriers.

  • Shields don't directly touch the face, and they stay put with built-in headbands. This design might feel more comfortable for little ones—especially in warm, humid weather.
  • Unlike face masks, shields guard the wearer's eyes. This is important because mucous membranes in the eye can be a portal for transmission of the coronavirus.
  • Shields' transparent exteriors make communication easier for the deaf population, kids with special needs, and those with learning disorders. (Note: The CDC recommends clear masks for these groups.)
  • Shields don't need adjusting as often as masks. Less contact with the face means reduced odds of contracting the coronavirus.
  • Shields can be washed and re-worn within minutes, unlike masks.

The benefits of shields are compelling, but it's important to understand their limitations, too.

The Cons of Face Shields

The coronavirus is usually spread when someone who has it speaks, exhales, coughs, or sneezes, emitting viral particles and droplets that get inhaled by someone nearby. These may also land on another person's eyes, nose, or mouth, or get picked up and spread by their hands to their mucous membranes.

Wearing a face mask keeps these contagions contained more effectively than wearing a shield does, and that restricts the spread of the virus. Properly worn, masks should cover the mouth and nose, fit securely underneath the chin, and rest snugly against the sides of the face, says Marnie Granados, M.D., a pediatrician with Children's Health of Orange County, in Orange County, California.

On the whole, face shields do not defend as well against the transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19. Often their plastic barriers do not fit neatly against the face, meaning that infectious particles can still flow around the bottom and sides of the shield, causing issues in both directions.

Their lack of protection became abundantly clear early in the pandemic when employees at a Swiss hotel found themselves in the middle of a coronavirus outbreak; only the ones wearing face shields ended up testing positive. They were more contagious, too: In fact, a guest who was previously negative for COVID-19 contracted it after contact with a shield-wearing employee.

How to Wear Face Shields Properly

What to do if your kids love their face shields? You don't have to throw them out—just don't let them be the only defense you employ. Use them instead to provide added protection against COVID-19, and encourage little ones to wear face masks underneath them. This combination covers their mouth, nose, and eyes, which will greatly decrease their odds of contracting the virus. And if your kid gets COVID-19, wearing both items will better protect those around them from getting sick. (Note: Kids under age 2 should never wear face masks, which can be a suffocation risk.)

For maximum protection, make sure your child wears a shield that fully covers the sides of their face and stretches down past the chin. Always have kids wash their hands or use hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol before handling a shield, and if it is reusable, clean and disinfect it after use. (Disposable shields can be tossed after every use, which may be easier for parents—plus, no worries about disinfectant residue!) After the shield is cleaned, users should wash their hands again.

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