Study shows disposable surgical masks are best for being heard

Istock Covid Maskers 12282020

(ILLINOIS) — It’s no secret that wearing masks during the COVID-19 pandemic makes it hard to recognize people and even harder to hear them clearly.  The latter’s especially difficult for those who are hard of hearing. 

With that in mind, hearing impaired device researcher Ryan Corey with the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign set out to find solutions for students at a local school who had hearing loss. 

Using a custom speaker set up that mimicked the way sound comes out of our pie holes, Corey tested various masks: everything from disposable surgical masks to those fancy ones with the plastic centers to aid people who read lips. 

Turns out that while the lip-reading ones were beneficial to those who could read lips, they ironically blocked the most sound, making them the worst for those who can’t hear well. And, the scientists noted, even people who don’t have hearing loss still read lips, albeit subconsciously, for context clues.

Woven 100% cotton masks performed well when it comes to blocking droplets that could transmit COVID-19, but they were also found to block sound. 

Disposable surgical masks performed the best when it comes to being heard.  However, the researchers say multilayered masks made of loose cotton were a good compromise between being heard and being safe from COVID-19. 

For those who have to speak for a living, like teachers or those who conduct meetings frequently, the researchers found wearing a small microphone and speaker setup can certainly help them project more clearly when masked. However, the scientists allowed, “Most people do not walk around with lapel mics and amplification systems while wearing a mask.” 

Corey’s findings, which were also posted in video form, were published in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.

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