Face coverings are an important public health measure at the moment, but they can make communication difficult. Clear face masks, or those with clear panels, might be an alternative – but they’re not perfect.
People who are deaf or hard of hearing, people with a learning disability, a speech difficulty, autism, dementia or English as a second language are particularly affected by the widespread use of face coverings.
There are exemptions to face covering rules for people who rely on lip-reading, but it’s still potentially difficult to communicate with the wider world, where opaque face coverings are the norm.
Standard face coverings obscure facial expressions and prevent lip-reading. Clear face masks attempt to mitigate this issue.
However, a common bugbear is that they can quickly steam up, obscuring the person’s mouth. They do also still muffle sound, but hearing loss charities told us that some people do find them helpful for communicating.
In collaboration with the National Deaf Children’s Society and disability/mental health charity Barnwood Trust, we asked people to share their experiences with choosing and wearing clear face masks, to bring you tips on what to look for if you want to try one.
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Types of clear face mask
The most common type of clear mask is a fabric mask with a transparent panel sewn in so you can still see the wearer’s mouth. The other is a fully clear mask – like the one above (the Clear Mask).
Some users told us they prefer a fully clear mask, as the ones with a transparent window still obscure some of the face, and some people felt that this didn’t do enough to improve communication.
The downside of the fully clear masks is that they’re supposed to be single-use and are sold in bulk – they’re intended more for health and education settings than for day-to-day use.
Face shields are good for vision, but less effective at reducing particle spread
Clear face shields or visors, which you may have seen particularly in hospitality settings, offer good visuals and can be comfortable to wear, but they are not an ideal solution as they have shown to be less effective at preventing particles escaping when worn alone without a mask.
It’s worth knowing you don’t have to wear a mask if other people need to be able to lip-read you to communicate. There is also an exemption for people who have a disability which makes it more difficult to put on, wear or take off a mask.
There are badges available to let others know why you aren’t wearing a mask, for example for use on public transport.
Find out more about face mask exemptions and what your options are if you can’t wear a mask.
Choosing a clear face mask: what to look out for
Based on user feedback, there are a few key things to look out for when choosing a clear face mask:
Clear panel steaming up
The clear panel fogging or steaming up is by far the most common complaint, and was reported in most of the feedback we received.
Some clear masks use anti-fogging or moisture-repellent coatings or materials, which could be worth a try. Simple clear vinyl is more likely to fog up.
Suggested solutions included using dishwashing liquid, shaving foam or specific anti-fogging spray (a couple of people suggested a spray that is used on motorbike helmets).
However, the feedback we received suggests that these are short term solutions and that some degree of misting up is inevitable if you wear the mask for a long period of time.
Lots of people said the mask can get hot and sweaty, as the plastic is less permeable than fabric. The plastic might make it more difficult to breathe, so check how comfortably you can breathe in it before using it out and about.
If the plastic is attracting lots of condensation, you should change your mask, as the droplets might be an infection risk.
A big question mark over these types of masks is how good they are at filtering particles. Unfortunately, we don’t know yet as we haven’t tested them.
Ultimately, they provide at least a rudimentary barrier to prevent particles escaping when you breathe or talk, but key issues are likely to be the rigidity of the panel, which may affect fit to the face, and how it impacts breathability.
There are some precautions you can take though:
- Check how the clear panel is sewn into the mask – look for any gaps or seams where tiny particles could pass through. There needs to be overlap with the clear panel and the fabric and it should be tightly attached.
Some users told us that the plastic panel was too rigid and didn’t allow the mask to fit as snugly or mould to the face, and some flagged that if the plastic was too rigid it cracked after a few uses.
Most of these types of masks are being made by smaller suppliers and grassroots organisations, and there aren’t yet dedicated standards for clear face masks, so quality can vary.
Feedback about washing these masks was mixed: some liked that it was easy to wipe off and sanitise the clear panel, then wash the mask by hand to clean the fabric.
But others pointed out that putting masks with a clear panel into the washing machine caused the plastic to warp.
How to use and wash a face mask properly – check our our tips on using face coverings safely
Where can you buy clear masks?
Many of the people we asked who had bought clear masks for personal use had bought them on Etsy, where there are a range of different handmade options.
Of course, caution is required when shopping on online marketplaces, and the quality can vary, so check the features outlined above and look for recommendations where possible.
For larger scale orders, some people recommended School Smart masks. You can also buy the Clear Mask on its own website.
We can’t make any recommendations around specific brands at this time, as we haven’t yet tested clear masks. Unfortunately, choices are still quite limited, although there are some increasingly high tech options turning up on funding sites such as IndieGoGo.
Do clear face masks help with communication?
While opaque masks can make it extremely challenging or impossible for some people to communicate, the level of improvement offered by a clear mask seems to depend on the type.
The majority of feedback we received said that clear masks offered a reasonable short term solution and were overall better for communicating than opaque masks.
But the level of satisfaction was heavily dependent on the factors outlined above, particularly on how badly the mask fogged up and how comfortable it was to wear.
Some users told us that, in certain situations like on longer journeys, it was easier to wear a standard fabric mask and briefly remove it from behind the ear in moments where it is essential to communicate.
Clear masks might be more important, however, in a context where ongoing communication is necessary, such as in classrooms and healthcare settings.
The Clear Mask has actually been approved by the Health and Safety Executive to be used by healthcare settings in certain situations during the pandemic, and it’s possible to request these masks are used during appointments (subject to availability).
How to aid communication when using a face mask
The Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) has a communication tips card to help people with hearing loss and those communicating with them. These include:
- speaking clearly, but not shouting
- moving to a place with less background noise
- writing things down
- using simple gestures
- using assistive devices like remote microphones with hearing aids if you have hearing loss.
Wearing a face mask with hearing aids
Face masks with ear loops are the most common type, but these can be a pain for people who wear hearing aids or cochlear implants.
The RNID has reported a rise in people losing their hearing aids while putting on and taking off their face mask. It recommends face coverings which tie around your head and don’t touch your ears, to keep your hearing aid or cochlear implant secure.
You should try to only remove your face covering when you are in a place where your hearing aid or cochlear implant processor could be easily found if it falls out.
If you do have a face mask with elastic ear loops, you can try buying a cheap mask extender (above), which links the straps at the back of your head. You can buy these, or make your own.
The RNID has worked with the insurance provider More Th>n to offer free mask extenders to customers who’ve made a claim for lost hearing aids.
Best and worst hearing aid providers revealed – our exclusive survey uncovers the best options
More clarity needed on see-through masks
While the latest vaccine developments may raise hopes that we won’t be wearing masks forever, more needs to be done to improve awareness around mask-induced communication difficulties, and to set quality parameters for clear face masks.
The RNID told us that they ‘would really like to see DHSC develop some clear guidelines and recommendations on this so mass produced coverings with clear panels can be produced and more widely used.’
The National Deaf Children’s Society are calling on the UK government to review the availability of clear face masks, and asking the public to be aware that deaf people will need greater flexibility and patience in communication while face masks are being worn.
The Barnwood Trust is running the Let’s Be Clear campaign to encourage clear face masks in public.