(CNN)Growing a beard may seem as harmless as committing to elastic waistbands, as far as pandemic trends go. But for some, choosing to forego shaving could impact one crucial method for ending the pandemic.
To shave or not to shave? How beards may affect Covid-19 risk
An important part of wearing face masks to reduce the risk of contracting or spreading coronavirus is that the mask fits snugly. Depending on a beard's length and thickness, experts have said it may reduce the effectiveness of mask-wearing by creating more space between your face and the mask.
Any opening "increases the chance that there is a virus that will get to the orifices, which can then obviously give you the disease," said Dr. Mona Gohara, an associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine.
Mask-wearing doesn't totally prevent infection, but it can help limit the spread of potentially virus-laden respiratory droplets among people. Mask use can reduce the number of new coronavirus infections by nearly 50%, according to a December 2020 study.
Is now the time to give up beards, then? The answer isn't simple. Shaving may be a blow to your self-expression, self-esteem, religious or cultural beliefs, or any skin conditions that are helped by letting your facial hair grow. Here's what people with beards should know and do during the pandemic -- including some possible ways your whiskers and masks could coexist safely.
There have been studies on whether beards accumulate, harbor or shed more or less bacteria than bare faces. But that research was inconclusive and on bacteria. There appears to be very little, if any, research on whether beards accumulate, harbor or shed more or less virus than bare faces.
However, given the evidence that "not being protected adequately with masks and social distancing does increase your risk of coronavirus," Gohara said, "if your mask isn't fitting properly, then you are increasing your risk."
Health care workers often wear masks, and they have known that facial hair is an impediment to proper mask-wearing since long before the pandemic. What commonly reveals the problem is when medical professionals' fittings for N95 masks are unsuccessful because of facial hair. Some facial hair styles aren't recommended, because they likely interfere with a respirator's seal (which presses to the face), or because the hair might interfere with the exhalation valve (which makes breathing easier), according to a 2017 infographic by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"For a mask to have any chance of fitting properly, it needs to be mask to skin, not mask to hair," Gohara said.
"If a mask can completely cover a beard, there (shouldn't) be any problem. If not, a beard is very likely to create a small gap between facial skin and mask unless one fastens the mask tightly," said Qingyan Chen, a professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University in Indiana, via email. "The small gap would create a leakage for air to enter (the) nose when inhali