The Best Kind of Mask for Speaking

In All Health Watch, Coronavirus, Featured Article

Teachers across the country who have returned to in-person instruction have noted one overarching frustration: Mask requirements, while necessary, sometimes make it difficult for students to hear what’s being taught.

Luckily, one teacher reached out to a friend, acoustic researcher Ryan Corey, about the problem. He realized that this is a common issue. Many of us have trouble being heard while speaking through a mask.[1]

Making things worse is the fact that most masks make it impossible to see visual cues like lip movements and facial expressions that make it easier to understand what a person is saying.

Putting Coronavirus Masks to the Test

Corey’s team at the University of Illinois decided to test different masks to see which made it easiest to communicate. They tested medical masks, disposable surgical masks, masks with clear plastic windows, and homemade and commercial cloth masks of different styles, fabrics, and numbers of layers.[2]

“We put different masks onto a head-shaped speaker and played the same sound,” explained Corey.[3]

They also did tests with a person wearing the different masks, using a computer to analyze the clarity of their speech.

There was one clear winner: The scientists discovered that disposable surgical masks are the best choice if you want to improve your chances of being heard.

Loosely woven 100% cotton masks also performed well. But other studies have shown they may not be as effective as surgical masks in blocking respiratory droplets.

Clear-window masks, which allow others to see your lips, did not test well.

“Unfortunately, the trade-off is that you can see through them, but they block the most sound of all the masks we tested,” Corey said. He published his findings in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.[4]

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