Editor's note, March 8, 2023: This article was originally written in 2020, when respirators and masks were being reserved for medical professionals. We now know that neck gaiters do not offer much protection against the spread of COVID, especially those that consist of a single layer of fabric. For more information on masking to stop the spread of COVID, please refer to the CDC and WHO, linked above, for current masking guidelines.
The recommendations provided in this article are out of date and will not be updated going forward. While these picks were the best options at the time, you may find some of these have changed or are no longer available.
This neck gaiter won me over because it's made with a supersoft fabric, comes in multiple sizes and blocks UV rays. The small/medium size is narrow, so these are great neck gaiters to pick if you have a small head and face like me -- I didn't have any issues with it slipping down. It also comes in large/extra large for an average adult head.
The soft bamboo fabric makes it comfortable to wear for long periods of time. Since the fabric is thin, you'll want to fold it into a double layer to use as a face covering. However, it's not the thinnest gaiter I tested and that's a good thing -- it feels substantial enough to keep you warm in cool weather and is also not too thick or stuffy to wear on hot days.
This might be the only gaiter I trust to slow the spread of germs. It has multiple layers of fabric, including a filter. The Biogaiter advertises that it uses "G95 filtration technology" that filters out "99.75% of all airborne particles size 0.1 micron and larger" in the entire gaiter. That level of protection is higher than an N95 respirator, which blocks up to 95% of particles 0.3 microns and larger.
That protection comes at a cost of style and comfort. There's no way around it, the design on this gaiter is, well, ugly. It's basically a cloth sack without a bottom and it tightens around your head using an elastic cord. In order to keep it from slipping down or riding up right into my eyes, I had to tighten it until it put pressure on my nose, which wasn't comfortable.
I'm not going to write off this gaiter though, because everyone's head is different and it filters the air, something none of the other gaiters I tested claimed to do.
If you're seeking a neck gaiter that plausibly slows the spread of the coronavirus, you can currently get this on sale for $39.
The Buff Original gaiter is longer than the others I tested, which makes it versatile because you can wear it several different ways, including as a bandana or a headband. The fabric tube is seamless and tagless, and it's light enough that it doesn't feel uncomfortable on warm days. Though it's thin, you can double up the Buff gaiter to give yourself more protection against the elements.
This lightweight neck gaiter also offers UV protection, with a UPF 50 rating. If you burn easily no matter how much sunscreen you put on, this is a good gaiter to wear in the sun as a face shield to give you an extra layer of sun protection.
The Buff comes in a wider variety of prints and colors than most gaiters on this list, and comes in several different styles, including ones that repel insects, block wind and have extra insulation for cold weather.
Smartwool has built a solid reputation for making wool clothes and accessories that are soft enough you'll want to wear them. That's the same for this merino wool neck gaiter.
It has two layers of soft merino wool to help protect your face from cold weather and as a neck warmer, while also wicking away moisture -- perfect for a winter sport like skiing or snowboarding. The tube is short, so you can't wear it as many different ways as other buffs on this list. It's also wider than most I tested, which meant I had a hard time keeping it from falling down, but it'll fit just fine on someone with an average-size head.
Recommended, but not tested
I wasn't able to test these neck gaiters before publishing, but I'm including them because they have noteworthy features.
While I haven't gotten the chance to test this fleece gaiter, I am calling it out because it's another good option for extra warmth in cold weather, especially in cold temperatures during the winter. Patagonia's a dependable brand and I'm giving it props for using 100% recycled fleece fabric and using fair trade labor to make it.
In my research, I wanted to see if the inexpensive gaiters that are all over Amazon are actually a good deal and offer decent breathability. I found this highly rated two-pack for $9 (now $12) and what came in the mail is pretty much what I expected -- cheap and unremarkable.
The "moisture wicking" fabric is breathable, but thin, so this neck tube is not all that protective against cold weather, dirt or spreading germs. If you're set on buying a cheap face covering, get a mask instead.
How I tested
I evaluated each of these neck gaiters on quality, design, warmth, moisture wicking and value. Though neck gaiters have been used during the coronavirus pandemic as a nonmedical face covering, all but one product I tested -- the Biogaiter -- were not designed to slow the spread of germs and do not claim to do so.
Since I don't have access to labs to scientifically test the efficacy of these neck gaiters as facial coverings, I conducted a match test popularized by Bill Nye. You hold a match or lighter about a foot from your mouth and blow as much as you can to extinguish the flame.
This test is not foolproof nor definitive, but it helps demonstrate how much air gets through a standard neck gaiter, and thus, how many droplets might escape. For reference, I have a two-layer cotton mask from Target that passes the match test.
With the single-layer neck gaiters, I doubled them up for the test. The only two that passed were the Biogaiter and the Smartwool neck gaiter, both of which have several layers of fabric. The Biogaiter even passed as I brought the flame closer and closer to my face. I was able to eventually blow out the flame while wearing the Smartwool neck gaiter, but I had to huff and puff hard several times to do so. For the rest, I could blow out the match with one puff.