Are face shields effective: A closer look at their protective power

In an era where health and safety have taken center stage, the effectiveness of face shields as a protective measure remains a burning question. Are these transparent barriers truly up to the task of shielding us from airborne threats, particularly in the age of COVID-19?

Join us as we embark on a journey to uncover the science behind face shields, their role in healthcare, and their performance in various settings. Let’s separate fact from fiction and explore whether face shields are reliable defenses against contagious particles.

are face shields effective

What Are Face Shields?

Face shields are transparent, protective equipment designed to cover the face, extending from the forehead down to the chin. They consist of a clear visor of polycarbonate or PET (polyethylene terephthalate) and a headband or strap for secure placement.

Primary Functions:

Barrier Against Respiratory Droplets: Face shields act as a physical barrier to block respiratory droplets from reaching the face, particularly the eyes, nose, and mouth. This is crucial in reducing the risk of viral and bacterial transmission.

Eye Protection: One of their primary functions is to shield the eyes from potential splashes, sprays, or debris. This is especially important in healthcare settings where medical professionals may encounter bodily fluids.

Full-Face Coverage: Unlike face masks, which mainly cover the nose and mouth, face shields offer full-face coverage. This added coverage provides an extra layer of protection against various hazards.

The Role of Face Shields in Healthcare

Face shields have a long-standing history as essential personal protective equipment (PPE) in healthcare settings. Their use dates back to the early 20th century when they were initially introduced to protect healthcare workers from splashes of bodily fluids and other contaminants. Over the years, their design and materials have evolved, but their primary role in healthcare has remained consistent: safeguarding the health and well-being of medical professionals.

Face shields offer crucial protection to healthcare workers in several ways:

  • Splash and Droplet Protection: In medical settings, healthcare workers often encounter situations where bodily fluids, such as blood, saliva, or respiratory secretions, can potentially be splashed or aerosolized during procedures. Face shields provide a barrier, preventing these fluids from coming into contact with the worker’s face, including the eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Respiratory Protection: In addition to shielding against splashes, face shields can act as an additional layer of protection when worn with face masks or respirators. They help reduce the risk of inhaling respiratory droplets containing pathogens, which is especially crucial during procedures that generate aerosols.
  • Prevention of Contamination: Face shields also prevent healthcare workers from inadvertently touching their faces with contaminated gloves or hands. This reduces the risk of self-contamination, a common concern in healthcare settings.

Numerous studies and research efforts have provided valuable insights into the effectiveness of face shields in preventing infection transmission. Some key findings include:

  • Reduced Risk of Infection: Research conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that healthcare workers who wore face shields and other PPE like masks and gloves experienced a lower risk of infection than those who did not use face shields.
  • Aerosol Protection: Face shields effectively block respiratory aerosols, which can carry infectious agents.
  • Comfort and Compliance: Studies have also highlighted face shields’ comfort and ease of use. Healthcare workers are more likely to wear them consistently, ensuring ongoing protection.

Face Shields and COVID-19: A Vital Tool in the Pandemic

Their use was widespread among healthcare workers, essential workers, and the general public due to their versatility and effectiveness in reducing the transmission of the virus.

Guidelines and Recommendations from Health Organizations:

CDC Recommendations: The CDC issued guidance on using face shields in various settings. While emphasizing that face shields should not be used as a substitute for face masks, they recommended their use in certain situations, such as in healthcare settings, as an added layer of protection, especially when caring for COVID-19 patients.

Protection for Frontline Workers: Healthcare workers were among the first to widely adopt face shields as they offered crucial protection when caring for COVID-19 patients. These shields helped guard against respiratory droplets and provided an extra barrier when performing high-risk procedures that could generate aerosols.

Essential Workers: Beyond healthcare, essential workers in settings like grocery stores, public transportation, and service industries also found face shields beneficial. They offered an added layer of protection when interacting with the public and helped protect the eyes from potential exposure.

Advantages of Face Shields:

  • Improved Comfort: Face shields offer advantages in terms of comfort and breathability compared to masks, which can feel restrictive, especially during extended use.
  • Clear Communication: They allow for unobstructed facial expressions and lip-reading, making them particularly useful in situations where communication is important.
  • Ease of Cleaning: Face shields are easy to clean and disinfect, which is essential for reuse in healthcare settings.

Potential Limitations or Drawbacks:

  • Inhalation Protection: While they protect against respiratory droplets, face shields do not filter the air like respirators or masks. Therefore, they are often used in conjunction with masks for complete protection.
  • Open Sides: Face shields have open sides, which may allow particles to enter from the sides or below. Proper fit and positioning are essential to mitigate this.
  • Fogging: The clear visor can fog up, potentially obstructing vision. Anti-fog coatings or regular cleaning can address this issue.
  • Not Suitable for High-Risk Procedures: In certain high-risk medical procedures that generate aerosols, additional precautions, such as N95 respirators, may be necessary.

Effectiveness of Face Shields in Various Settings

Face shields have proven to be versatile and effective tools in various settings, each with unique requirements and challenges.

1. Healthcare Settings:

Face shields are highly effective in healthcare where patient contact is common. They provide comprehensive protection for healthcare workers against splashes of bodily fluids and respiratory aerosols, reducing the risk of infection transmission.

2. Public Transportation:

Face shields can be beneficial for public transportation employees, such as bus drivers and conductors, who interact with passengers in confined spaces. They act as a barrier against respiratory droplets when maintaining physical distance may be challenging.

3. Schools:

In educational settings, where students and teachers interact closely, face shields provide additional protection against respiratory droplets. They can help reduce the risk of virus transmission.

4. Retail and Customer Service:

Retail and customer service employees benefit from face shields when interacting with customers. They protect potential respiratory droplets from customers.

5. Office Settings:

In office environments, where physical distancing may not always be possible, face shields can be a supplementary protective measure, especially in areas with a high prevalence of respiratory infections.

Effectiveness Against Airborne Particles

Research has shown that face shields can effectively block larger respiratory droplets and aerosol particles that may contain infectious agents. A study published in JAMA Ophthalmology found that face shields reduced exposure to inhaled aerosols by 96% within 18 inches of a cough.

A study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene found that face shields offer robust protection to healthcare workers in high-risk procedures with respiratory aerosol generation.

Face Shields vs. Face Masks: A Comprehensive Comparison

Face shields and face masks are both crucial tools in the fight against respiratory infections like COVID-19. Here, we compare and contrast these protective measures in terms of effectiveness, comfort, ease of use, and expert recommendations:


  • Face Shields: Face shields provide a physical barrier that covers the entire face. They are effective at blocking respiratory droplets and larger airborne particles. However, they do not filter the air like masks.
  • Face Masks: Face masks, such as surgical or N95 respirators, filter and trap small airborne particles, including respiratory droplets. They offer a high level of protection against inhaling or exhaling infectious agents.


  • Face Shields: Face shields are generally well-received for their comfort. They do not touch the face directly, reducing skin irritation or difficulty breathing issues. This comfort is crucial for individuals who need to wear protective gear for extended periods.
  • Face Masks: Face masks can be less comfortable for some individuals, particularly those with respiratory issues. Masks may feel restrictive and cause discomfort around the ears or nose. Proper mask fit is crucial for comfort.

Ease of Use:

  • Face Shields: Face shields are easy to put on and take off, making them user-friendly. They do not require precise fitting like masks, which can be an advantage, especially for those unfamiliar with proper mask use.
  • Face Masks: While face masks are also relatively easy to use, they require proper fitting to be effective. Users must ensure a snug fit, covering the nose and mouth without gaps.

Safety Guidelines for Proper Use of Face Shields

Wearing and maintaining face shields is crucial to ensure they provide the intended protection. Here are important safety guidelines to follow when using face shields:

1. Wear a Face Shield Properly:

  • Ensure the face shield completely covers your face, extending from the forehead to below the chin.
  • Adjust the headband or strap to secure the shield comfortably but snugly against your forehead.
  • Check that there are no gaps between the shield and your skin, especially around the sides.

2. Clean and Disinfect Regularly:

  • Clean your face shield before and after each use with soap and water or a mild detergent.
  • Use a disinfectant or sanitizer recommended for use on transparent plastics.
  • Don’t use abrasive materials or harsh chemicals that may scratch or damage the shield.

3. Avoid Touching Your Face:

  • While wearing a face shield, avoid touching your face, especially the front of the shield.
  • Touching the shield can transfer contaminants to your hands and vice versa.

4. Maintain Good Hand Hygiene:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before and after touching your face shield.
  • If soap and water are unavailable, use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol content.

5. Replace Damaged Shields:

  • Inspect your face shield regularly for wear, cracks, or damage.
  • Replace shields that are damaged, as they may not provide adequate protection.

6. Keep a Spare:

It’s a good practice to have a spare face shield on hand if your primary one becomes damaged or needs cleaning.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

1. Wearing the Shield Inadequately: Some people wear face shields too high on their forehead, leaving gaps at the bottom. Make sure it covers your entire face, including your chin.

2. Neglecting Regular Cleaning: Face shields can accumulate dirt, smudges, and potentially infectious particles. Neglecting cleaning can compromise their effectiveness.

3. Wearing a Dirty Shield: Reusing a dirty or contaminated face shield defeats its purpose. Clean it thoroughly between uses.

4. Using a Damaged Shield: Cracked or scratched shields may not protect adequately. Replace them promptly.

5. Touching the Shield: Repeatedly touching your face shield can transfer contaminants. Minimize touching it while it’s on your face.

6. Wearing It Alone When Masks Are Necessary: In high-risk situations, face shields should complement, not replace, face masks. Always follow guidelines from health authorities regarding the appropriate protective measures.

7. Sharing Shields: Avoid sharing face shields with others, which can lead to cross-contamination.


Face shields, versatile guardians against respiratory droplets and contaminants, have carved a distinct niche in safeguarding health. They’ve shown their mettle in healthcare, education, and public spaces. With their ease of use and maintenance, these transparent sentinels stand strong in our collective defense, contributing significantly to our safety during uncertain times. Whether in a pandemic or daily life, face shields are an invaluable tool in our arsenal.

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