The order shuttering all nonessential businesses in an effort to combat the spread of the coronavirus has resulted in many questions, such as: “Should I get this cough checked out?” “What businesses are open?” And “Should I grow a beard?”
The last of those might, at first blush, seem silly in the context of a global pandemic, but it’s one that’s probably crossed many a man’s mind after realizing that working at home is an opportunity to depart from the grooming rituals of normal daily life.
But there are some serious things guys need to know before deciding to cancel their daily date with a slice of sharpened steel. Most important: How does having a beard affect the transmission of the coronavirus? And, related to that: Is there one style of facial hair that’s preferable over another?
For a brief moment, it appeared that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention actually had answered some of these questions — and provided a hilariously detailed visual chart of “safe” facial-hair styles to boot. Unfortunately, that infographic, which originally was issued in 2017, had nothing to do with coronavirus and was intended as a guide for workers required to wear respirators at work.
Dr. John Swartzberg, a clinical professor emeritus at the University of California Berkeley’s School of Public Health who studies infectious diseases, said he doesn’t know of any scientific study that addresses facial hair and the transmission of the coronavirus. But he has some thoughts on beards and masks.
“When you have to breathe through a mask you have to use more force when you inspire, and [that increased] inspiratory force sucks more air [in] around the cheeks,” Swartzberg said. “So if you have a lot of facial hair, it’s going to make it even worse.”
In other words: If you hope to use a mask to prevent the transmission of the virus, facial hair that prevents a tight seal around the nose and mouth is a bad idea.
In the absence of a scientific study focusing specifically on facial hair, Swartzberg took health care workers’ standard protocol for washing their hair to avoid contamination as a starting point.
“With long hair you can see where it’s possible that droplets [of the virus] could get in someone’s hair,” he said. “And I guess — and I’m really reaching here — if you touched your hair and you’ve got those droplets on your hair and then put your hand to your mouth or your nose or your eyes, you could inoculate yourself. So, if somebody coughed on you and then got [the virus[ on your hair, and you then rubbed your hair or put it to your mouth or nose or eyes, theoretically you could transfer it that way.
“With a beard I guess it would be the same thing,” he said. “If somebody coughed on you and there were some viral particles in your beard and you rubbed your beard and then touched your mouth or eyes, I guess you could inoculate yourself.”
He hesitated before emphasizing that he was theorizing. “I know of no science to support what I’ve just said,” he said.
But on the issue of having facial hair, especially if it increases the potential for touching one’s face (perhaps while absent-mindedly stroking your philosopher’s beard in contemplation), Swartzberg seemed less circumspect.
“That’s not good,” he said.