Whether you’ve embraced the quarantine beard trend or are a dyed-in-the-wool beard loyalist, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's official recommendation to wear a mask raises some hairy questions. The good news is that cloth mask wearers don’t necessarily have to break out the razor blades, but—as with all aspects of this historic pandemic—you’ll need to arm yourself with knowledge (and maybe some beard oil) to make sure your beard and your mask coexist peacefully.
Beards and Masks: What We Know
The subject of beards and masks has generated a bit of confusion, particularly in the spring of 2020 when a years-old pre-COVID chart from the CDC began to recirculate online. This chart showed the recommended facial hairstyles for filtering facepiece respirators, such as N95 masks, to ensure an airtight fit. It was quickly spread as a general recommendation for facial hair and daily, nonprofessional mask wearing, though it was not made to apply to this scenario.
To be clear, it is true that facial hair inhibits the effectiveness of the seal an N95 mask makes around the nose and mouth, which is the reason why many health care workers—even those who wear beards for religious reasons, in some cases—have opted to go clean shaven. However, let’s remember that the critically limited supply of N95 masks should be reserved for health care workers.
On the other hand, reusable cloth masks are recommended for daily wear for non-health care workers. Because cloth masks do not form an airtight seal to begin with (they work simply by reducing the number of droplets the wearer releases into the air), they’ll do just fine as a mask for beard wearers, especially those who are limiting their public trips. In a 2020 New York Times interview, lung transplant surgeon Dr. Elliot Wakeam posits that facial hair likely doesn’t decrease the efficacy of a cloth mask.
Mask Hacks for Beards
Right at the top of the CDC’s “Considerations for Wearing Masks” site, we see a gentleman with a cloth face mask over a luxuriously long beard, reminding us that we can wear our beards as normal, so long as the mask completely covers the mouth and nose.
Beards are also an expression of personal style, though, and masks can be an opportunity for even more expressiveness. You’re free to tuck your long beard if you prefer. If a bushy beard makes your mask uncomfortable, try smoothing it with a beard brush and softening beard oils, or tie a particularly long beard to keep it under control. Hospital worker Peter Hall, a Melburnian competitor in the World Beard and Moustache Championship, describes his method to 9 News: He tucks his long beard into a neck gaiter, which then goes under his collar, and puts a cloth face mask over the top of that. Sleek and smooth.
If you are wearing an N95 or airtight facepiece in the healthcare space, the decision to keep or shave your facial hair will be a personal and professional choice, but it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. While full beards or any other facial hair that interferes with the mask’s sealing perimeter are a no-go, options such as the soul patch, small goatees that don’t cross the jawline, and all manner of mustaches—from the pencil stache to the walrus—are still safe, per the CDC.
Best Beard Practices
Speaking to NPR in 2020, infectious disease specialist Dr. Amesh Adalja notes that, “There’s no evidence that having a beard per se makes you more or less vulnerable to the coronavirus.” Epidemiologist Dr. Supriya Narasimhan backs that up in an NYT interview, noting that as long as you’re not wearing an N95 for health care work, having a beard is “near the bottom” of the list of risky things you can do. That said, our bearded brothers can certainly take some extra precautions.
Bearded folks are often more likely to touch their faces, whether it be for itchiness or grooming, so that’s something to be extra attentive about in terms of viral spread. Avoid running your hands through that beautiful bushy beard when you’re in public, and always wash your hands, face and, yes, your beard thoroughly with soap and water as soon as you get home.
If you have to be in public a lot, pay extremely close attention to beard hygiene, as facial hair can trap germs that are afloat in the air. In this case, a closer trim may be beneficial. And of course, whether your beard is 6 millimeters or 6 inches long, maintain 6 feet of distance from others whenever you can.
CDC: CDC Calls on Americans to Wear Masks for Prevent COVID-19 Spread
The New York Times: Maybe Consider Shaving That Pandemic Beard
CDC: Considerations for Wearing Masks
Journal of Hospital Infection: A Close Shave? Performance of P2/N95 Respirators in Healthcare Workers with Facial Hair: Results of the BEARDS (BEnchmarking Adequate Respiratory DefenceS Study)
NPR: Should You Shave Your ‘Quarantine Beard’?
CDC: Facial Hairstyles and Filtering Facepiece Respirators