On March 6, Michael Wade, a student at the College of William and Mary, found out all his MBA classes would move online because of the coronavirus lockdown. On March 7, Mr. Wade quit shaving.
“It occurred to me I wasn’t going to have to see anyone anytime soon,” says the 36-year-old Richmond, Va., resident. And, so, he just let things go — and go, and go. “I had about three weeks of scruff, which is maybe an inch? An inch and a half? My facial hair grows fast,” he says.
In case you haven’t been checking in with friends on Zoom and Instagram, the pandemic beard is (ahem) a growing trend. Christopher Cieri, founder of the Philadelphia-based skin care company Franklin & Whitman, says sales of beard-grooming supplies were up 40 percent in March. At Mountaineer Brand, a West Virginia-based beard product company, sales are up 45 percent, says its chief executive, Eric Young, adding, “Customers who have shopped us for soaps, shaving and other grooming needs are taking this time to step-up their beard game.”
Mr. Wade never got to the “buy beard oil” stage, although he muses that perhaps that was the problem, as he never manicured his mane. “One day, my wife looked at me and said, yeah, that’s not going to work.” He got out his clippers.
Mr. Wade’s wife may have done him a favor. “If a family member or friend were to ask me if they should grow a beard right now, I would probably dissuade them from doing it,” says Dr. Supriya Narasimhan, chief of infectious diseases and the hospital epidemiologist at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose, Calif.
“Health care workers are for sure all shaving,” says Dr. Elliot Wakeam, a thoracic and lung transplant surgeon at the University of Michigan Medical Center. This is because facial hair inhibits how well an N95 mask fits, the standard mask that health care workers are wearing to protect themselves from being infected by Covid-19. In a January 2020 study published in the Journal of Hospital Infection, researchers evaluated the fit of N95 face masks on 195 male health care workers. Not a single worker with a full beard obtained a proper fit, and the more facial hair a health care worker had, the worse the fit was.
“Even medical professionals with beards for religious purposes are shaving,” says Dr. Wakeam. Though, to be clear, health care workers with beards can safely wear a full-face respirator called a PAPR, and shaving is being left as a personal choice at hospitals throughout the country, says Dr. Narasimhan.
Of course, because N95 masks are in such critically short supply, they should mostly be reserved for health care workers. If, for some reason, you are wearing an N95 mask, though, you might as well wear it correctly.
On March 3, the C.D.C. republished a guide to respirator-friendly facial hair on its website. If you want to give it a try, the “soul patch” and the “Zorro” are fine from a medical standpoint. Mutton chops and the John Muir look are non-starters. When it comes to a cloth mask, Dr. Wakeam says facial hair probably isn’t inhibiting its efficacy, since there isn’t an air-tight seal to begin with.
Dr. Narasimhan is clear that, in the list of risky things you can do during a pandemic, if you’re not needing to wear an N95 mask, growing a beard is near the very bottom. Still, she says there’s some indication that people with beards may touch their faces more often, either because they’re subconsciously grooming those beards or because beards can be itchy. If you happen to have the virus on your hands and you touch your nose, mouth or eyes after playing with your lustrous face-locks, “that’s how you contaminate yourself,” she says.
If you want to keep your beard, it’s probably not a huge risk — so long as you’re not going out in public beyond essential errands, says Dr. Narasimhan. But everyone should avoid touching their face — even if you need to tweak the perfect curlicue on your Dali mustache. When you get home, wash your hands and your facial hair with soap and water.
Personally, Dr. Wakeam he says he’ll keep shaving until the pandemic passes. But he’s honest about the reason: “I really can’t even grow one.”