25th May 2020
What’s the risk of beards and respirators? Does a beard seriously compromise the functionality of a mask?
We know respirator face masks have long been a part of working safely. Masks in general are also becoming a part of living safely as we adjust to COVID-19 management. What happens when guys choose to have a beard, but need to wear a mask? How well do beards and respirators mix?
Traditionally from an occupational health and safety perspective, beards and respirator face masks have been a hard “no” for many organizations, unless a suitable full face mask is available and appropriate for the nature of the work.
Beards have also come under scrutiny for their potential to harbor bacteria, this McGill University article touches on some of those concerns.
For many tasks, a full face mask just isn’t practical though. A clean shaven face is often the requirement for the workplace.
While some men may wish to find alternatives to compromise and keep their facial hair, a compromise in the masks seal can compromise their health.
I have suggested to some clients that they get creative and experiment with versions of facial hair that allow creativity, however it’s key to fit test, and ensure that the facial hair does not compromise the functionality when considering a beard and respirator.
The CDC has some suggestions in this article for certain types of beards and other facial hair that may reduce risk of compromising the functionality of a respirator.
We know that how well a mask fits impacts how safe a worker is. So fit matters, but how much? Recently, and locally, research at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby set out in April this year to explore the same topic, and question.
Their paper “The efficacy of breathing apparatus of various mask design when worn with facial hair” has just been released.
Exactly how much would facial hair compromise the functionality of a respirator? The research focused on three key aims:
Testing was performed using the TSI and PortaCount® Pro+ Respirator Fit Tester 8038 and the CSA Z94.4-2011 standard.
The answer is yes and no. They looked at a wide range of masks, from N95’s up to full face cowls and the relationship between facial hair, beards, and respirators.
As you can see in Table 1. below, generally bearded participants did not fare as well as clean shaven participants.
As the mask type moved from simpler fitting masks such as the N95, to more elaborate and better fitting full face masks such as the Fast Cowl SCBA, the pass rate between bearded, and clean shaven participants became similar.
Table 1. Overall pass fail rate of all participants and all mask models
|Overall Pass / Fail|
|Fast Mask Full||45||48||94%||45||47||96%|
|Fast Mask SCBA||43||44||98%||46||47||98%|
|Fast Cowl Full||44||49||90%||46||47||98%|
|Fast Cowl SCBA||47||48||98%||44||45||98%|
Does a beard seriously compromise the functionality of a respirator?
Generally speaking, yes. Clean shaven in this research generally showed better pass rates. However with some of the full face masks, the difference in pass rates was minimal or equal in relation to the beards and respirators.
Here’s the summary of the researches findings.
“Masks that are designed for use with SCBA performed significantly better with facial hair than the full face and half mask design.
The Fast Cowl design was a little impacted when worn with a large turban, and minimizing the size of the turban would likely address this problem.
The Fast Mask likely would have had no issues with face shape or head size if we had a larger size available like we did with the Cowl design.
The inflation system for securing the mask to the participant appears to perform the best of all designs we tested and would likely offer protection for all shapes of face and facial hair length we feel.
Although the pass rate is higher without facial hair in the half masks and full-face masks, the presence of facial hair does not necessarily render the mask ineffective for use with facial hair.
Further testing should be done under conditions that mimic working conditions to determine if sweat has an effect. Repeat testing over a series of days would also be useful to determine how often a pass is obtained when the same person retests.
Lastly, the N95 design needs further investigation to determine if providing more sizing and models to improve fit would change the results to favour clean shaven faces or if the same protection is provided regardless of facial hair as observed in this study.”
This is just one recent study, but it confirms what many organizations have already identified as a risk, that beards and respirators aren’t ideal. Wearing a mask with facial hair can compromise the masks design, and function impacting its ability to filter atmospheric hazards.
In short, it is still reasonable and appropriate for a workplace to request a clean shaven face to reduce risk of compromising the seal of a respirator face mask.
Care must be taken when selecting a respirator. Where there are cultural, or other barriers to use of a respirator, there are alternatives.
A fit testing program, and regular fit testing is a regulatory (section 8.40 fit tests) requirement for some work tasks requiring a mask, and is needed to ensure good use and application of respirator face masks.
WorkSafe BC have also recently published guidance on the selection and use of COVID-19 related masks.
Thanks to Sherri Ferguson and her team at SFU for sharing the research. If you’re interested in the full report please contact:
Sherri Ferguson MSc.
Director | Environmental Medicine and Physiology Unit
Faculty of Science
Posted in: Safety Blog