Hearing loss and masks have been a hot topic since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. And rightly so. Masks, while necessary for health and safety, make it much harder for people with hearing loss to communicate with others. Face masks not only physically block sound, they also take away speechreading cues like lip movements and facial expression. A double whammy for people with hearing loss.
Clear masks are often cited as the solution because the transparent window allows for lipreading. But there is a trade off. A recent study published in Audiology Today shows that clear masks block up to twice as much sound as an N95 mask and up to four times as much sound as typical surgical masks, depending on the type of clear mask tested. When face shields were added, the sound quality plunged further.
Audiology Today’s Study Showed Significant Sound Degradation with Many Clear Masks
The study was conducted in a double-walled sound booth using a white noise machine presented through a loudspeaker manikin head. The output was measured from 6 feet away. Researchers analyzed the decibel impact of a variety of masks when worn alone, and when combined with a face shield.
The table below shows the decibel degradation under each condition. Surgical masks showed the least impact on the sound, with a 5 decibel impact, while transparent cloth masks had the most, with a 21.2 decibel hit. Anytime a face shield was added, the result was significantly worse. Practically speaking, this may mean that the plexiglass dividers in the supermarket checkout line are doing more to negatively impact communication than the masks themselves.
MASK + SHIELD
|FaceView Mask (transparent window)||
|Safe ‘N’ Clear Mask (transparent window)||
|Transparent Cloth Mask||
Source: Audiology Today
Are Clear Masks The Best Option In All Situations?
This study raises critical questions about whether or not clear masks are the best solution for helping people with hearing loss communicate with others during these challenging times. As with any hearing loss question, the answer may vary situationally and from person to person. For good lipreaders, the benefits of the clear window may outweigh the additional sound degradation, while for others, the speechreading benefit may be less important. Results may also vary depending on the severity of your hearing loss.
Ryan Corey, a researcher at the University of Illinois found similar sound results in his mask study. He summarizes his findings as such: “Surgical masks and loosely woven cotton masks work best for sound, while denser fabrics and clear window masks muffle high frequencies.”
Dr. Corey recommends technology solutions like lapel microphones, especially for teachers and others who need to talk frequently while wearing a mask. He lays out more details in his captioned video, “Which mask is best for hearing?”
Technology Fixes May Work Better than Clear Masks
More research is needed, but perhaps funds and attention should be redirected toward finding alternative solutions to clear masks via technology. Already, some hearing aid companies and creative audiologists have begun adding mask settings to hearing aids. These settings boost the higher pitched sounds blocked by masks. Several programs may be needed, one for each type of mask you encounter.
In educational settings or public spaces, investments in captioning technology and/or looping solutions may be preferable in the short term, and have more lasting positive consequences for accessibility over the longer term. Maybe the best solution is a combination of both — clear masks to allow speechreading plus technology fixes to offset the sound degradation.
Readers, have clear masks helped you better communicate with others?
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37 thoughts on “Hearing Loss: Are Clear Masks Really the Answer?”
We’re all figuring out what the best way is to get around this serious issue. In a past post, Rapid Response PPE was listed and it seemed to encompass the whole face with a transparent enclosure without fogging up. My initial research seems to be positive but haven’t heard any practical feedback from anyone as yet. I’m wondering what the sound quality is with this particular item. Also, sound blockage may not be the only issue with a clear face mask. Depending on the quality, the plastic part can become uncomfortable and sticky as well as fogging up. There will likely never be a standard way to deal with this problem and people with hearing loss will always have to pivot and adjust at the spur of the moment. That’s quite stressful and exhausting.
The game is always changing and we will need to continuously adapt, as you say. It is stressful, but if we support one another, we can get through it. Thank you for sharing your perspective.
I ordered and use ClearMask and it’s been fantastic for me when people put it on to communicate with me. To my hearing, the sound is no less thru clear mask than regular mask…I appreciate that I can see faces and lipread and that’s the most important thing.
I am glad they work for you. Thank you for sharing your experiences with the clear masks.
Thank you for this report. I find that being able to read lips is more important than the level of sound. But, it is all difficult. Even television news is more difficult with people speaking from remote locations with poor sound quality, and sometimes wearing masks, too, and the captioning lagging way behind. Understanding people wearing a mask behind a plexiglass barrier is often very difficult.
Hearing loss is so individual. Thank you for sharing your perspective on the subject.
With my severe-profound hearing loss, I no longer can understand 90% of the folks searing masks with whom I interact. Clear face masks may help a bit, but I’m not a master lip reader, nor, I suspect, are most late-deafened adults. The pandemic will one day be behind us, but we’ll still struggle to hear in a noisy world. Some enlightened banks, pharmacies and supermarkets have installed small area hearing loops, which are especially needed where plexiglas barriers separate us from clerks and cashiers. We should use external microphones and speech-to-text apps to the extent possible, while advocating for loops and other assistive listening options. Advocacy of clear plastic masks is nice, but somewhat misguided.
I agree that technology solutions are a great option, both in the short term and in the longer term too. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
My absolute worst experience has been at the post office. Not only are the associates masked and behind deep counters, but every station is draped with clear plastic sheeting with a slot to slide items in and out. It’s necessary, but a nightmare for me. I have to ask for their patience, but I sense people waiting behind me without any patience and it is so frustrating. Ordering food through drive-thrus without visual confirmation screens is also tough. I’ve been in touch with my audiologist to raise the treble in my aids. Maybe that will help.
I hope it does. Thank you for sharing your experiences.
I am finding it very hard as wax removal at clinics are no working yet and also my audiologist in not open so
Struggle every day
I am so sorry that is happening. Can your audiologist recommend a doctor or other audiologist nearby that could help? Good luck to you!
I am an audiologist and I think I will activate their live listen in their phone in the office face to face. If they cannot stream in that manner, I may use talk to text to review any facts or questions.
Please also ask the patient what they think will work best for them if you are not already. Hearing loss is so individual, as you know. What works for one person, may not be the best choice for another. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
I will ask on the audiology blogs if there is a frequency specific response for the anticipated blockage with the mask. That might be used to create a separate “masked” program to add in at least some of that sound.
Yes, a masked program is a great idea. I believe some audiologists are already offering this. Thank you for your comment.
I wish to leave a comment that Shari Eberts has posted very credible comments about clear view masks. Also, I ask that her comments be read widely by as many consumers as possible because hearing loss is so individual and much can be learned about the masks.
Thank you for leaving your comment.
Such valuable information here about individual needs. Each person has unique issues with speech sounds that are muffled with use of masks. Tweaking settings on hearing aids by audiologists, is a great idea.
Hearing loss is so individual. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
HOH people have started wearing masks that say, “I’m HOH and I can’t read your lips with your mask on. Please be patient and speak loudly …thank you.” Then, they also ask the speaker to use pen and paper, or an app that converts speech to text.
Yes, there are many workarounds. Thanks for your comment.
Experience full perspect face mask yesterday with a health worker and sound is muffled harder to hear anything, re flexion from window on mask therefore harder to read lips and increase in my tinnitus probably due to stress of trying to understand and read lips.
So sorry. The clear masks are a mixed bag. Thanks for sharing your experiences with them.
Yes the support of each other is critical at a time like this. Great article!
Thanks for being part of our community.
Deaf people can’t hear. It doesn’t matter the sound quality as long as Deaf people can see facial expressions AND sign language.
Many people with hearing loss use residual hearing and technology to communicate. The sound quality matters to them. We are all different and must support one another’s needs. Thanks for your comment.
Hi, Thank you for the updates regarding hearing loss, yes, it is very hard to hear with people wearing mask as I have profound deafness and a lip reader. I am grateful that my Husband is with me at all times if we need to go out. I hope and pray that soon we will no longer need the mask and the hearing loss world will be better with new technology each year.Some people are understanding and are willing to move their mask so I can lip read or speak clearly and loud. Thank you for everything you do for us!
You are lucky to have your husband with you to provide assistance. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this challenging subject.
Clear Masks will be obviously be useful or not useful depending upon your own individual hearing loss, your lip reading skills etc… As others have noted – they do not discern much difference in sound levels with various masks and I can concur, too, with my profound hearing loss – it is pretty subtle. I have had hearing loss since infancy and was sent to an oral tradition (lip reading – no signing) school for the deaf at age 3 and mainstreamed into public school at 1st grade. This was long before ADA benefits came into existence.
The Covid 19 pandemic has been extremely frustrating for communication despite being a good lip reader and while I can “hear” the voices behind the masks I cannot always discern what is being said. Despite explaining I can’t hear because need to read lips many behind the mask simply repeat themselves and after the third time I quit. Frustrating. At my last two visits to medical professionals both were wearing the entirely clear masks for which I was grateful for. If it diminished any sound it was more than made up by the ability to easily lip read keeping stress levels down.
Currently, I am waiting for my T-shirts that I designed to alert the salesperson or a visitor that I need to read lips to “hear” and that masks make it hard. Meanwhile, I designed a laminated card (3″ x 8″) that I pull out of my purse to stating how I need to read lips to hear…perhaps we can write notes? Today at the drive-in bank I popped that laminated card into the container along with the checks – it worked like a charm!
Nonetheless, it is a difficult world for those of us who live alone with our hearing loss to have our world shrink even more as we have more difficulty being sociable while trying to stay safe in this pandemic. Recently, I bought a box of 24 clear masks to have on hand for my friends. This affords an alternative will not put them at risk of the virus for my benefit. I’m sure they won’t be perfect but they are better than no masks at all. Like most of us I’d much rather there was no need to wear masks!
Thank you for sharing these great tips.
Please can you tell me where you got the box of clear masks? I’ve been trying but I only find ones that are unavailable and on backorder. Thanks.