Wearing a mask to stop the spread of COVID-19 is easy for most people, but for those who’ve invested their time into growing a most-luxurious beard, things are not so simple.
You may be trying your best, but we have to break the unfortunate news: Wearing a mask over your beard just doesn’t work as well. This is especially important right now, as new, more contagious strains of the virus gain footholds across the country.
But since shaving is an extremely personal decision, there are still steps you can take to lower your risk of infection and protect others even if you choose to keep those exquisite locks.
Beards and cloth masks don’t get along
If you think of the strands of your facial hair as thread or yarn, your beard would be closer to a knit sweater than a tightly-woven cotton t-shirt, leaving enough gaps for particles potentially carrying COVID-19 to make it through to or from your nose and mouth. And this not even considering that beards don’t provide the necessary grip for a mask to stay in place, so you’ll likely have to touch it constantly to reposition it.
“Persons with beards are kidding themselves. Their masks cannot work as well as the ones with a tight fit over their skin,” says Dr. Sten Vermund, dean of Yale University’s School of Public Health, and beard wearer for more than 40 years.
Even though shaving your beard is the best option when it comes to protecting yourself and others against the novel coronavirus, if you want to keep your locks, you’d better take all the precautions you can.
Trim your beard
Maybe we can’t convince you to shave your beard, but perhaps we can convince you to trim it. The goal is to reduce the size of your beard enough so it can comfortably fit within your mask, with the fabric sitting on smooth, shaved skin.
Vermud promptly adapted his beard style in early 2020, substantially cropping it so his mask completely encompassed the hair on his face. “If a larger mask has a fit that is on skin, not on your beard, they may work fine, too,” he says.
A facial hairstyle infographic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been making the rounds among beard enthusiasts on the internet, though it’s important to note that it is from 2017 and was not designed to provide mask-wearing guidelines for COVID-19. Even so, it gives great details as to what styles might be more mask-friendly. Unless you have a ZZ Top-style beard, a small trim might be enough to allow your mask to contain all your whiskers.
Find a large mask
“Everyday people who are not working in high-risk professions or exposed to COVID-19 regularly should not have to shave clean. They just have to try to find a mask that fits,” says Dr. Monica Gandhi, a professor and specialist on infectious diseases at the University of California, San Francisco.
The goal here is the same—for the mask to sit against skin rather than hair. If you find a mask that’s big enough, you could forgo any trimming. There are some models that go from ear to ear and use pleats to “bag” your beard inside. You can also find masks with an added piece to cover long beards, though Gandhi says this is not necessary.
“As long as the nose and mouth are tightly covered, those with long beards do not pose more of a risk to others nearby. It is really the air coming out of the nose and mouth that can spread the virus,” she explains.
Go for a tight fit
As long as you leave some room to breathe comfortably, the tighter the fit, the better. This will tamp down the hair of your beard, eliminating as many gaps as possible. You can accomplish this fit by either double-masking (use a surgical mask on top of a cloth one) or using pantyhose pulled up over the mask on your face.
The heat, moisture, and condensation from your breath will most likely make a tight fit uncomfortable, so make sure to take breaks safely when possible. The space behind a mask is also a perfect environment for the growth and proliferation of bacteria, so make sure to change or clean your masks, and wash your face when you come home.
Another downside of a tight fit over facial hair is the dreaded beard dent—the unflattering face equivalent to hat hair. Depending on your beard, you can take care of this by dampening the hair and using a conditioning product on it, and letting it air dry. If you want more control and a luscious shine, you can arm yourself with a round brush and a hair dryer, which will help you show your beard some TLC.
Say no to masks with ear loops
Chins are crucial for masks to stay in place, but if you have a long beard, you probably haven’t seen yours in a while. Without a chin to keep them in place, masks with ear loops will ride up and cover your eyes, which is not only annoying, but dangerous if you’re driving or crossing a street.
When choosing a mask, go for one you can tie to the back of your head and neck—that way it’ll be easier to control placement and fit. And if you’re not willing to let go of your favorite ear-loop mask, using a strap extender will definitely solve your problem.
Wash your hands a lot
Sudsing up has always been one of the most basic ways to fight the spread of COVID-19, but a year into the pandemic, some of us are probably more relaxed about it. If you have a beard, you may want to rethink that.
If you have problems keeping your mask in place, you’re probably doing a lot of tugging and rearranging. This is dangerous, as you may be bringing infected particles directly to your face, but you can keep your risk at bay as long as your hands are clean.
Beards and respirators don’t get along either
Common face masks—made out of cloth or materials such as polypropylene—are most effective when they sit snugly over your nose and mouth, leaving no gaps or openings where they rest against your wonderful visage. In the case of more sophisticated masks such as N95 respirators, which healthcare workers usually wear, the standard is even higher, as they require a perfect seal between the skin and the mask. This is when a full beard or voluptuous mustache becomes a problem.
Even a shy five o’clock shadow will prevent that required seal, which is why hospitals have asked medical workers dealing with COVID patients to come in clean shaven for their shifts.
If this sounds like something you are not willing to do, there might be alternatives that could make it possible to keep facial hair without compromising the effectiveness of a medical-grade respirator. Researchers at the University of Bedfordshire in the UK looked into a technique called Singh Thattha, in which people use strips of fabric or latex tied to the top of their heads to cover their beards before putting on medical-grade respirators such as N95s. The data is certainly not conclusive, but in 25 out of 27 cases, the masks’ filtering abilities did not decrease, giving hope especially to those who wear beards for religious reasons.
What to expect
Even if you do shave, consider that this change of look will not be for long. With vaccines rolling out all over the country, and studies looking into how much of an infection risk inoculated people pose for the rest of the population, Vermud is hopeful that beards will be able to come back in all their glory.
“Perhaps the looser fit of a mask on a larger beard is not as critical an issue for the fully vaccinated man and his contacts,” he says.
Gandhi is even more of an optimist: “Definitely keep your beard! We will be out of masks soon once we get to mass vaccination.”