Are Clear Face Masks for Lip Reading Safe and Effective?

Cristopher Centers

“It’s been a difficult internal struggle because I’ve always been one to stand up for myself, but at the same time, of course, I understand why masks are imperative at this time,” says Powell. This is a common refrain many of us have raised during this time: the acknowledgement that, […]

“It’s been a difficult internal struggle because I’ve always been one to stand up for myself, but at the same time, of course, I understand why masks are imperative at this time,” says Powell.

This is a common refrain many of us have raised during this time: the acknowledgement that, despite the difficulty it creates for them, they understand the need for face masks and don’t want to discourage others from using them.

“I want to wear a mask to help myself and others,” says Katie Sawyer, a deaf woman in the U.K., “I think the idea of [clear masks] is great as it really is so isolating seeing peoples’ mouths covered but this is a good compromise as we don’t want to endanger our health or safety of others by not wearing masks or having others remove their masks to talk to us.”

It’s not just the Deaf and hard of hearing community who can benefit from clear masks. Nathan Tamar Pautz, who also wears hearing aids, explains that some trans people are being misgendered when they go out in a face mask.

“I am non-binary and my only relief during this pandemic has been to obsessively search for a better mask,” they say. “Otherwise, I don’t even want to go out in public. I have spent $350 on different ones.”

The benefits of clear face masks for the Deaf and hard of hearing community are obvious, but unfortunately, their efficacy against the spread of viruses is less certain.

Michael Chang, an assistant professor of infectious diseases at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in Houston, notes the lack of significant clinical data in terms of this type of face mask. That being said, he does think clear face masks are a good option — with a few caveats. “If a clear plastic mask fits well, and the seam between the plastic section and the cloth section is tight, and the cloth part is multi-layered and tightly woven, I certainly don’t think the clear plastic masks would be worse and may even perform better at preventing the spread of droplets and aerosols [than other face coverings],” he says.

Neha Nanda, medical director of infection prevention and antimicrobial stewardship for Keck Medicine of USC, recommends wearing a face shield in conjunction with a clear face mask. “Three-layered cotton face masks are ideal,” she says. “However, in situations when cloth face masks cannot be worn, clear masks with the addition of a face shield can be worn.” Nanda cautions against using a face shield on its own; you should always have a mask on underneath the shield.

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